Over the Ukraine war, there have been two campist positions which have emerged on the Left – support or apologetics for Putin, and support or apologetics for NATO, tied to backing for Sir Keir Starmer’s Labour leadership. Paul Mason is an example of the latter. Alfie Hancox’s review of Mason’s How to Stop Fascism: History, Ideology, Resistance gets to some of the political roots of Mason’s thinking. This article was first posted in Ebb Magazine.
REVIEW OF PAUL MASON’S HOW TO STOP FASCISM, IDEOLOGY, RESISTANCE
Paul Mason, the self-declared ‘Gramscian social democrat’ turned NATO cheerleader, who cooperated with counterintelligence agencies in a covert info war against his erstwhile comrades, has written a book on anti-fascism. In How to Stop Fascism: History, Ideology, Resistance, Mason constructs a familiar narrative in which the ‘anti-systemic’ (communist) left paved the way to fascism in Europe by alienating reformists and the liberal centre. His defence of the centrist politics of the ‘golden mean’ rests on the assumption that liberalism is self-moderating – a notion belied by the liberal establishment’s response to the social and economic crises of the 1920s and 1930s. Reiterating Hannah Arendt’s definition of fascism as the ‘temporary alliance of the elite and the mob’, Mason argues that the only thing that can stop it is ‘an alliance of the centre and the left’. Yet in the present-day context, it is evident that the ‘lesser evil’ of the ‘extreme centre’, through its dogmatic support for economic austerity, anti-migrant policies, and imperialist warmongering, instead holds the lion’s share of responsibility for the contemporary rise of authoritarian populism.
Mason’s claim to provide ‘a new, materialist theory of fascism’ is undermined by his tacit promotion of a culturalist framing of civilisational conflict and romanticised portrayal of the ‘rationalist, liberal principles of the Enlightenment’. This reflects Mason’s increasing preoccupation to defend the liberal capitalist order against what he calls the ‘authoritarian, anti-modernist dictatorships’ of the East, by advocating uncritical support for NATO interventionism and military escalation. At a time when neoliberal states are intensifying their powers to suppress popular protest and stifle intellectual dissent, How to Stop Fascism calls for a revival of the ‘militant democracy’ adopted by anti-communist governments in the repressive Cold War context. Though the recent leaking of Mason’s McCarthyite mind map of the anti-NATO ‘infosphere’ has damaged his credibility, the ideas elaborated in his book hold a good deal of currency among the reformist left in Britain and are therefore worth examining.
Drawing on the lessons of the interwar period, Mason argues that ‘Hitler’s path to power was paved by the political theories of his left-wing opponents’. Although communists like Clara Zetkin, Antonio Gramsci, and Leon Trotsky were the first to take seriously the virulent counterrevolutionary essence of fascism, and to theorise its dynamics as a mass movement, Comintern orthodoxy was, as Mason puts it, wedded to a ‘fatalistic optimism’. The Comintern leadership’s belief that social revolution in Western Europe was imminent, and that the main enemy was therefore reformism, encouraged an underestimation of the fascist threat. This naïve viewpoint was expressed by the Italian Communist Party leader Amadeo Bordiga, who claimed in 1924, a year before Mussolini consolidated his dictatorship, that ‘Fascism, fundamentally, merely repeats the old game of the bourgeois left parties’. Despite the early setbacks this approach produced in Italy and Germany, it was subsequently codified in the Comintern’s ultra-left policy of ‘class against class’, when social democracy was defined as ‘the moderate wing of fascism’.
While it’s easy, as Mason does, to emphasise the ‘futile sectarianism’ of the Comintern’s Third Period, there were real and unavoidable reasons for the ‘great schism’ between communism and social democracy. In the First World War, the reformist parties of the Second International allowed themselves to be swept up in the patriotic fervour – mobilising labour movement support for a catastrophic inter-imperialist conflict. Social democracy, by integrating into national state structures through the course of WWI, had tied its fortunes with that of a disintegrating liberalism. During the German November Revolution, the Social Democratic Party (SPD) took the side of capitalist restoration, helping suppress the Spartacist Uprising which culminated in the executions of Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg. Over the following decade, the SPD’s ability to advance a viable socialist counter to the rise of reaction was utterly hamstrung by its ‘sense of constitutionalist responsibility and patriotic mission’ and ‘traditional prejudices about the undisciplined instincts of the non-Social Democratic masses’. As Mason acknowledges, the reformists ‘were blindly committed to legality and parliament, at a time when politics was becoming radical, violent, populist and moving to the streets.’ Nevertheless, he argues that a viable left-wing strategy would have entailed ‘an alliance with liberalism to defend the existing democracy, no matter how flawed it was.’
As emphasised in Enzo Traverso’s Fire and Blood: The European Civil War, 1914–1945, in the interwar conditions of severe capitalist crisis, the collapse of liberal and social-democratic corporatism was an objective situation which communists were responding to, not responsible for engendering. If reformism held over the working class in Britain, this owed not insignificantly to the fact that, relative to Germany and Italy, it was a ‘sated’ colonial power, where prolonged imperial dominance provided the economic cushioning for the national crisis to be resolved in ‘a peculiarly British collectivism’. Even here, though, the Liberal social reformer William Beveridge suggested in 1932 that only ‘a world dictator’ could resolve the capitalist crisis. Writing shortly after the election of Hitler, dissident German communist (and future Cold War liberal) Richard Löwenthal captured the inescapable problems of reformism in the pre-fascist context: ‘The dilemma of its position is expressed above all by the fact that any effective resistance to the attacks of the bourgeoisie only makes a capitalist resolution of the crisis more difficult; it intensifies the crisis and contributes to the further undermining of democracy. On the other hand, to make concessions directly benefits its opponents by weakening its own basis of support.’ Mason argues that the communists trying to ‘out-shout’ the fascists as ‘revolutionary opponents of the system’ was fatal since it alienated the reformists and liberals. Without a left-wing anti-systemic option, though, would not more disenfranchised workers, peasants, and declassed petty bourgeoisie have been pulled towards the fascist ersatz ‘alternative’?
Mason is correct to say of liberal democracy that ‘[n]ot only does it allow workers and oppressed people the space to organize in but we, the people, actually helped create it, through two centuries of struggle.’ The crucial point, though, is that liberalism is not self-moderating: the bourgeoisie don’t wait for their exploited opponents to organise to conduct their side of the class war. The collaboration of the parliamentary wing of the Italian Socialist Party with the liberal government did not prevent Prime Minister Giovanni Giolitti brokering an electoral pact with Mussolini’s fascists. If communists had retreated from agitating among workers and confronting fascists on the streets, and joined the reformists in allying with the bourgeois establishment, would that have prevented the industrialists and landowners from weaponising fascist terror against striking workers and peasants? As Löwenthal again pointed out, the passivity of German social democracy in the face of Nazism, and its support for the lesser evils of Brüning and von Papen, did nothing to improve its (or democracy’s) fortunes: ‘The more the labour movement becomes the passive victim of the democratic crisis, without the capacity to transform it, the more the mere continuation of its existence is widely seen as itself the cause of the crisis, or at least its perpetuation. The less it is able to exercise a Marxist dominance over the situation, the more the dominance of Marxism is made responsible for every misfortune.’
If, as Mason maintains, Marxism’s biggest weakness has been to underestimate the value and resilience of liberal democracy, one of its greatest strengths has been to demystify the limited and contingent conception of freedom upheld by the political elite. As Ralph Miliband noted, more clearly than any other phenomenon the rise of fascism demonstrated how quickly the ‘men of power, privilege and property’ are willing to dispense with political liberties if they see this as necessary to preserving the capitalist order. If increasingly transparent objective circumstances – that fascism was not just the enemy of socialism, but of democracy as such – provided the basis for anti-fascist alliances with middle-class liberals, this was offset by the latter’s counterrevolutionary instincts. Fear of Bolshevism, which represented the twin threat of proletarian insurrection and anti-colonial revolution, made fascism the preferred option of many bourgeois democrats. Before the outbreak of the Second World War, it was ‘the widespread hope of imperialist circles, especially in Britain, to use a re-armed Fascist Germany, in unity with Japan, for war on the Soviet Union’. The Liberal statesman David Lloyd George found in Nazism ‘a fierce and uncompromising hostility to Russian Bolshevism, coupled with a genuine admiration for the British people’. Mason notes how fascism gorged upon ‘the wider culture of colonialism, nationalism and militarism that flourished among conservative-minded people before the First World War’ – but this was a culture that also swept up the liberal establishment steeped in the ‘pseudo-humanism’ of the Enlightenment.
In justifying his call for ‘an alliance of the centre and the left’, Mason points to the Popular Front alliances, which won elections in France and Spain, as ‘the only historical example of democracies effectively defending themselves against a significant fascist threat’. The politics of the anti-fascist national fronts were a product of what Eric Hobsbawm described as the ‘moment of historical paradox in the relations of capitalism and communism’. The liberal imperialist powers had previously preferred fascism to Bolshevism, but their hand was forced by Hitler’s aggressive strategy of colonial expansion in Europe; while the Comintern’s new policy of ‘The People’s Front Against Fascism and War’, which completely reversed its earlier ‘class against class’ line, was a painful compromise in desperate conditions, as Nazi imperialism threatened the Soviet state’s survival. Communists in the Allied imperialist countries dropped their prior anti-colonial commitments, entered class collaborationist agreements, and learned to sing the patriotic tune, with lasting consequences in the post-war period. It is doubtful that a Popular Front involving communists and liberals would have been possible at an earlier point in Italy or Germany – as Mason himself admits, this would have required the bourgeoisie to have wanted to stop fascism which ‘as it turned out, they never did’. And immediately after the defeat of the Nazi war machine, liberalism seamlessly switched from anti-fascism to anti-communism and neocolonial counterinsurgency under ascendant US hegemony. Despite this, Mason presents the Popular Front as a universal strategy that should be emulated today.
The situation in the 1920s and 30s, when a much stronger left and labour movement was facing the phenomenon of counterrevolutionary ‘battering-ram fascism’, was very different to today’s danger of ‘fascist creep’. As argued by the Marxist scholar of fascism David Renton, who wrote an overly-generous review of Mason’s book, if the left was ‘genuinely facing’ an ‘immediate catastrophe’, then ‘an alliance with liberals would make sense, even if meant biting our collective tongues’. In the present conjuncture, however, Renton points out, there are ‘a lot of good political reasons why people might not want to be in a Popular Front dominated by anti-Trump liberals’, not least the experience of ‘the 30-year history which caused tens of millions of voters to see Trump as legitimate’. Mason claims that when the left attacked ‘liberals like Hillary Clinton’ alongside Donald Trump, they were repeating the sectarian errors of the Third Period. However, left-wing opposition to Clinton was based on a realistic understanding that the neoliberal centre, by delivering decades of economic austerity, systematic violence against migrants, and successive imperialist wars in West Asia, is responsible for the rightward shift of the political spectrum.
Deploying the Gramscian language of hegemony, Mason argues that a modern Popular Front needs to occupy some kind of centre ground on social issues: ‘if there is a social force that represents progress, deeply attached to its own conceptions of justice, solidarity and fairness, it needs to build alliances with other social forces who do not share those conceptions, and to avoid needless cultural friction with them.’ This reference to ‘needless cultural friction’ tacitly plays into the dominant liberal discourse of political polarisation that advocates for ‘sitting on the fence between oppression and resistance’. As much is evident when he writes how it ‘unfortunately, may be true’ that ‘trashing the statues of slave traders’, ‘opposition to forced deportations’ and ‘active resistance to racist policing’ has prevented Labour from winning back ex-industrial constituencies from the Tories. Mason’s framing of the ‘culture war within working-class communities’ deliberately obfuscates the material stakes of racism in Britain’s hostile environment. While statist ‘multiculturalism’ has done nothing to alleviate the economic impoverishment of Black, brown, and migrant communities, its association with neoliberalisation has enabled centrist politicians to blame excessive cultural ‘tolerance’ for the hardships caused by capitalist austerity and deindustrialisation. When describing an anti-BLM demo in London, Mason pays lip service to W. E. B. Du Bois’s analysis of the compensatory psychological ‘wages of whiteness’. But in claiming that the left ‘firmly rooted in the educated, city-dwelling and multi-ethnic workforce’ is unable to address ‘logical’ concerns about immigration, Mason recapitulates the divisive narrative of the ‘white working class’ being singularly left behind which has been central to the rise of contemporary right-wing populism.
Like the social imperialists of the Second International, Mason aims to plaster over class antagonisms by appealing to traditional values, economic protectionism, and the nation’s privileged positioning in the capitalist world-system. During the Corbyn years, Mason called for Labour to adopt ‘a programme to deliver growth and prosperity in Wigan, Newport and Kirkcaldy – if necessary at the price of not delivering them to Shenzhen, Bombay and Dubai.’ As has historically been the case, reformist efforts to maintain labour politics within the parameters of capitalist competition via ‘the national-racialized scaffold’ undermines working-class power in the economic crisis while giving fuel to the populist right. As David Broder has written, Mason seems to think that Gramsci’s argument for the workers’ party to establish a ‘moral and intellectual leadership’ entails ‘swallowing the imperatives of bourgeois politics, or posing as better exponents of the existing hegemonic values’.
In 2018, Mason wrote that ‘[i]f we survey the remnants of centrist social democracy and social liberalism – Renzi in Italy, Schulz in Germany, Hillary Clinton in the USA and the Progress wing of the British Labour Party – the image that springs to mind is of shipwreck survivors clinging to pieces of wreckage.’ This sober assessment has, however, since been overridden by his hostility to the Eurosceptic and anti-NATO left – what he refers to as the ‘Neo-Stalinism’ which ‘destroy[ed] Corbynism’. Like many lapsed Marxists, Mason has allowed a romanticised view of Western civilisation to take the place of any materialist account of world politics. While in his book Mason distances himself from the Cold War theory of ‘totalitarianism’, which served the political purpose of mobilising anti-fascist rhetoric against various threats to post-war capitalism, he has clearly internalised its inner logic. After the outbreak of the recent Ukraine conflict, Mason asserted that ‘the whole survival of Enlightenment thinking, democracy and the post-1945 charter system depends on defeating – morally, politically and if necessary militarily – states which have become aggressive, totalitarian and ethno-nationalist.’ Mason’s binary opposition between the ‘globalist, democratic’ West and the ‘totalitarian’ East is intended to insulate the former from criticism. Mason’s description of the EU and North America as ‘former imperialist countries’ is unlikely to be taken seriously by the global populations still living under the thumb of neo-colonialist oppression. As summarised by antiwar author Jeremy Scahill, ‘the mass murder, the sanctions, the regime changes, the election interference, the covert support for anti-democratic forces determined to be good for so-called free markets is, today, as it was in the 1950s, sold in the name of bringing freedom’. It remains the case that the question of democracy cannot be abstracted from the systemic violence of the international capitalist order.
How to Stop Fascism concludes by calling for a revival of the ‘militant democracy’ advocated by Cold War liberals in the post-war context. Mason describes how in post-fascist countries, ‘constitutions were altered to avoid the fate that had befallen the Weimar Republic, with rules banning violent political parties and militias, restricting hate speech, and enshrining the state’s monopoly of coercive force.’ ‘For all their flaws and failings’, Mason contends, ‘many of the regimes constructed after 1945 were anti-fascist democracies.’ Yet the NATO bloc’s rehabilitation of Nazi generals and industrialists in West Germany, and support for right-wing dictatorships in Greece and Portugal, suggested that Cold War liberalism was more concerned with suppressing communism and reconstituting capitalist hegemony under the leadership of US imperialism, than preventing the re-emergence of fascism. Mason’s call for a return to McCarthyite repressive tolerance – what he terms ‘Militant Democracy 2.0’ – comes at a time when neoliberal states are already encroaching on the right to protest and voice dissent. Within Britain, Mason has helped provide left cover for Keir Starmer’s project to make Labour the preferred party of ‘law and order’. Mason’s belief that a strongarm democracy is needed to ‘push the extremists back towards populism’ betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of fascism as a process that exploits existing authoritarian tendencies in the state. It shouldn’t be easily forgotten how the political establishment’s rabid demonisation of the ‘unpatriotic left’ encouraged a white-nationalist terrorist to murder Labour MP Jo Cox in 2016.
Mason apparently misses the irony of psychoanalysing the ‘authoritarian radical’ mindset of socialists pursuing system change, while lamenting that left-wing activists ‘cannot imagine themselves running MI5, the British army or taking crunch decisions about an SAS operation.’ Absence of literary acclaim notwithstanding, Mason’s political trajectory mirrors that of the archetypal patriotic socialist, George Orwell: both had stints at the BBC, both combined their anti-communism with an admiration for Popular Frontism, and both produced blacklists of the radical left with sinister emphases on ethnicity. Mason attacks the economic determinism of interwar Marxists, but, like Orwell, he has fallen victim to another kind of fatalism: the belief that in the end hope lies not with the proles, but with the bourgeois state. Unfortunately, Mason’s state loyalism and parliamentary paternalism are reflective of wider opportunistic trends within the British left unable to contain their admiration for Starmer’s ‘ruthless pragmatism’.
Attempts to moderate capitalist states by adapting to the centrist politics of the golden mean, to the detriment of building democratic resistance to an undemocratic system, have the opposite effect to that intended in the long run. The most significant lesson of Corbynism was that the more the left made concessions to the liberal centre, for instance on issues of ‘national security’, immigration, and policing, the bolder the right-wing of the party became. Of course, this does not mean the left should revive the sectarian politics of the Third Period. Nor can it simply drag up ready-made models of either a ‘united front’ or ‘popular front’. Early communist debates on hegemony ‘raised a host of questions that could not be resolved by reference to basic principle but required instead well-honed tactical flair grounded in local experience.’Nevertheless, Mason is an instructive case of what happens when the watering down of principle for the sake of pragmatism becomes a guiding political philosophy.
 Geoff Eley, Forging Democracy (Oxford University Press, 2002), p. 168.
 Stuart Hall and Bill Schwarz, ‘State and Society, 1880–1930’ in Crises in the British State (CCCS, 1985), p. 30.
 David Beetham ed., Marxists in the Face of Fascism (Haymarket Books, 2019), p. 307–8.
 In Italy, a minority of radical middle-class intellectuals following the ‘liberal socialism’ of Piero Gobetti adopted a militant anti-fascist position.
 Rajani Palme Dutt, Fascism and Social Revolution (M. Lawrence, 1935), p. 217.
 Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Extremes (Abacus, 1995), p. 7.
 Mason claims that the Gramscian ‘toolbox’ includes ‘an end to revolutionary phraseology’ and ‘an alliance with liberalism to defend the existing democracy, no matter how flawed’ – as if Gramsci didn’t spend his entire political career as a communist revolutionary attacking the deficiencies of Italy’s liberal democracy, with its endemic parliamentary corruption, social-imperialist tendencies, inability to solve the ‘Southern Question’, and reliance on authoritarian methods to suppress industrial militancy.
Critiques of Campism