After Dylann Roof: What is fascism?

After Dylann Roof’s racist massacre in Charleston, we republish an article by Anindya Bhattacharyya written in response to Anders Behring Breivik’s massacre on 22 July 2011.

Dylan Roof

Dylan Roof photo from white supremacist web site

The following article was originally a contribution to the ebook On Utøya edited by Elizabeth Humphrys, Guy Rundle and Tad Tietze.

Anders BreivikThe reporting of Anders Behring Breivik’s massacre on 22 July 2011 proceeded in two distinct phases. Initially the bombing of government buildings in Oslo and the shooting spree on Utøya were assumed to be the work of Islamists. The airwaves were full of terrorism “experts” pontificating on why jihadis had chosen to target Norway. But once it became clear that the perpetrator was a Norwegian with far right sympathies, the narrative quickly changed. Discussion of the political drive behind the atrocities became muddled, if not muted altogether.

Breivik was typically presented as lone madman whose inner working could not be rationally fathomed. Some even argued that to ascribe a political motivation to his actions was tantamount to disrespect for the dead.

Others made fitful attempts to preserve the trope of religious fanaticism: true, Breivik was no Muslim, but perhaps he was a “Christian fundamentalist”. Yet Breivik’s “manifesto” explicitly repudiated that label, insisting that his was primarily a “cultural Christianity” that did not depend upon any specific religious commitment.

Above all, we saw a systematic obfuscation of Breivik’s fascism. While Breivik’s affinities with far right ideology could scarcely be denied, the emphasis fell upon apparent divergences between his position and those traditionally held by fascists. The effect of this was to yet again cut Breivik off from any familiar political reference points and present him as an unfathomable enigma.


What is going on here? Why is there this reluctance to discuss Breivik’s politics, either in general terms or as specifically fascist? One reason is undoubtedly a certain ideological embarrassment. David Cameron, Nicolas Sarkozy and Angela Merkel may condemn Breivik, but all three have drawn from the same well as he.

To bring attention to Breivik’s politics thus risks bringing attention to the fact that his position merely intensifies common themes of today’s mainstream discourse: that multiculturalism is dysfunctional, and that Europe’s Muslims are an alien intrusion into Christendom.

The same coyness over the question of fascism characterises the mainstream media’s approach to a whole series of far right phenomena. Take the English Defence League, for example – an organisation much praised by Breivik. Their emergence has prompted a great deal of breast-beating from politicians.

We are told the EDL is a product of “white working class alienation” and a lamentable “loss of national identity”. The EDL’s racism is more or less ignored, as are its documented links to a long British tradition of fascist street thuggery.

But there is more going on here than liberal ideology simply not wanting to recognise Breivik’s fascism, or that of the EDL. There is also a deeper sense in which liberal ideology cannot recognise fascism even if it wanted to. For it starts off from assumptions that prevent it from ever constructing an effective answer to the question: what is fascism?


The basic flaw of liberal approaches to specifying fascism is the notion that one can find an answer to this question on the plane of ideology alone. The liberal political taxonomy is based upon “schools of thought”. A political current can be more or less identified with what its proponents say, with their “views”.

It follows that political struggle is in essence the exchange of these views. This exchange can be civil or fractious, more or less regulated, but the fundamental model of politics as a rational discussion, a debate between competing views, remains fixed.

The problems with this approach become evident the moment one tries to apply it to fascism. To start with, fascist ideology – if such a thing can be said to coherently exist – is wildly contradictory and unstable, held together in the last instance by mysticism rather than rationality.

Moreover, the notion that politics can be boiled down to a debate between rival proponents espousing their positions assumes that the statement of position is an honest one. But what if the proponent is lying? This is not merely an abstract possibility: fascism elevates opportunism to a principle and makes a point of misrepresenting itself in the public sphere. The notion that you say one thing to the general public while reserving an esoteric truth to a party hardcore is part of the basic strategy of organisations such as the British National Party or France’s Front National. The liberal model of more or less honest debate is unable to cope with this kind of systematic deception.

Finally, the net effect of trying to situate fascism ideologically is to find it everywhere and nowhere. Everywhere, in the sense that no firm dividing line can be drawn between the declarations of fascists and everyday reactionary sloganeering. Nowhere, in the sense that central tranches of classical fascism – eugenic race science, the corporate state – were once commonplace features across the political spectrum but are now almost universally discredited.

This “everywhere and nowhere” effect appears in debates around the popular usage of the terms “fascist” or “Nazi”. On the one hand conservative pedants insist the terms can only be used to refer to historical political phenomena associated with Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler respectively. This consigns fascism to the historical past and makes the notion of a contemporary fascism a contradiction in terms.

On the other hand we see a hyperbolic inflation of the term fascism to encompass anything anyone might find remotely authoritarian or unpleasant. Thus Islamism, socialism, anarchism, the struggles of the Palestinians or the people of Latin American – all of this becomes “fascist”.

Frequently the two positions are combined in a kind of absurd synthesis whereby fascism is omnipresent across the political spectrum with the exception of the politics that actually exhibits a demonstrable filiation to the tradition of Hitler and Mussolini. Needless to say, this line of argument is particularly popular among fascists themselves, who are keen to displace accusations of fascism onto their accusers.


So what happens once we move beyond this liberal approach to political taxonomy and start thinking of political currents in terms of what they do, not just what they say – as forces in a material struggle rather than as stances in an idealised debate?

This approach is taken by the historian Robert O Paxton in his illuminating 2004 work The Anatomy of Fascism. Paxton analyses fascism first and foremost as a political movement, with a programme and trajectory, rather than as a mode of government or a set of ideological beliefs.

He also specifies the historical context for the emergence of fascism: it was a reaction to the revolutionary wave that swept Europe in the early 20th century. Traditional means of repression were of limited use in the face of these mass uprisings. The police force was too small and the army too prone to mutiny. What was needed was a reactionary political movement with a mass base, and fascism arose to fulfil that need.

Paxton’s approach to fascism is a great improvement over the usual historical vagaries. In particular, he grasps how nationalist movements with superficially different ideological preoccupations can nevertheless share a common programme and method, and it is these commonalities that characterise their fascist nature.

But Paxton is weak on the question of class. He rightly rejects the Stalinist definition of fascism as simply the most reactionary form of capitalist domination. But he doesn’t consider alternative Marxist analyses of fascism, notably those of Leon Trotsky, despite independently arriving at many of the same conclusions.

Trotsky’s analysis of fascism, developed in the 1920s and 1930s, takes pains to distinguish it from earlier and less sophisticated forms of reaction. He singles out three key features of fascist movements that characterise them and set them apart from superficially similar political strains.

First, fascism has a dual character. It acts as both a mass street movement and an “official” political organisation, claiming to abide by the norms of democratic politics while simultaneously organising terror gangs on the ground against the left and minorities. We see this pattern today with the EDL’s disingenuous insistence that it is “peacefully protesting against militant Islam”, or in the British National Party’s specious claims to have cast aside its previous racism in a bid for electoral respectability.

Second, fascism’s mass base is rooted in the petty bourgeoisie. It appeals not to the very poorest in society, but to those in the middle, who have been typically lifted up during economic booms but face the prospect of crashing back down to earth in an economic crisis. These are people whose lives are structured by competition rather than traditions of solidarity found in the workplace. Hence the appeal of racist theories that blame economic woes on foreigners gobbling up resources – and hence the importance of radical nationalism to weld them together. Again we see this pattern in the EDL and BNP today. Contrary to the fashionable notion that these groups represent the “white working class”, the empirical evidence suggests they are disproportionately middle income and self-employed.

Third, fascism’s aim is to seize state power by crushing the left on the streets and by undermining democratic rights and institutions from within. Hitler and Mussolini both posed as democratic politicians only to destroy every kind of democratic or progressive right once they had seized state power. Persecuting ethnic minorities is a means to this end, rather than an end itself. And the total character of fascism’s counter-revolution means it is a threat to social democrats and liberals, not just to the far left. Breivik’s targeting of Norway’s social democrats is in line with this general fascist paranoia that sees “cultural Marxism” across the progressive political spectrum.


With this characterisation in mind we can revisit and clarify the question of Breivik’s fascism. To start with, the milieu he operated in – his network of contacts on Facebook and other internet channels – are clearly dominated by fascist organisations, the EDL being the most prominent of them. Breivik – who is himself a stereotypically petty bourgeois, with a string of failed businesses and moneymaking schemes to his name – is a product of fascist movements. He identifies politically as a “nationalist” – the preferred term used by fascists to describe themselves. And much of his “manifesto” is spent pondering and considering the different strains of nationalist ideology currently prevalent on the fascist scene.

Far from representing a serious choice between rival political currents, Breivik is clear that the choice of ideology is at bottom a tactical question. He rejects Hitler-style overt antisemitism, not out of any principled objection to Jew-hatred, but because it is more effective to target Muslims and feign support for Jews against Muslims. Indeed, at points Breivik baldly states that Britain and France still have a “Jewish problem”. These are not the words of a “post-fascist”, but of a fascist taking a thoroughly instrumental attitude to the contemporary ideological landscape, and adopting his preoccupations to fit.

We also see the dual character of his pronouncement, on the one hand paying lip service to “secular democracy” (conceived as a European tradition under threat from Muslim immigrants) and sexual liberalism (ditto), while on the other hand personally professing thoroughly reactionary attitudes on these and other issues. In particular we can see how Breivik’s “Christianity” is again little more than an ideological shell, a series of tropes and themes marshalled together for the purposes of justifying his hatred of Muslims, multiculturalism and “cultural Marxists”.

Finally we can see the warning and challenge that Breivik poses to all forms of democratic and progressive politics in the West. His massacre should have prompted widespread contrition among politicians that have fuelled the pan-European anti-Muslim agenda. Or if not contrition, at least a pause for thought. Instead the BBC saw fit to invite the EDL’s repulsive leader Tommy Robinson onto its flagship Newsnight programme, where Robinson proceeded to threaten many more Breiviks if his band of Islamophobic thugs were not appeased and allowed to hold their “peaceful protests”.

We have been here before. In the 1920s it was a commonplace among German politicians that while Hitler’s “extreme” antisemitism should be decried, he was responding to genuine concerns and that a “moderate antisemitism” should be practiced to prevent the Nazis from growing. History records that this policy had the opposite effect. Similarly attempts by mainstream politicians today to throw sops to the racists by attacking Muslims, immigrants, multiculturalism etc will only fuel the rise of groups like the EDL. And if they continue to rise we will face not just one or two more Breiviks, but dozens. The lessons from the bloody history of fascism are clear. The question is who is willing to listen and act.

There are 4 comments

  1. Random Entity

    “the empirical evidence suggests they are disproportionately middle income and self-employed.”

    The poll linked in the article doesn’t support this point. The claim that they are disproportionately middle income appears to be the best-supported; 28% fall into 20-30 thousand euro per year households, although they are precisely average in income elsewhere except in the top two brackets. But 9% of BNP voters claim to be self-employed, which agrees exactly with the average among those polled. The breakdown by sector and the reported social grades do nothing to aid the article’s claims. On what, exactly, is this supposition based?

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