'Centrism' - the new 'social fascism'?
Updated: Dec 28, 2018
Below is an extract from Chapter Four of Warring Fictions. This comes from the section explaining what the Dark Knight myth is, and how it arises. It uses the example of 'social fascism' to draw modern comparisons.
Which side are you on, boys?
The Dark Knight refers to the idea there is an irredeemably selfish and wicked incarnation of the political right, with whom the left must clash. The myth stems from a singular view of what is politically moral, which places those with whom we disagree on the side of immorality – or, at least, on the side of ‘less morality’ – as Dark Knight to our White Knight. The fable encourages politics to be viewed as a continuum from ‘moral’ left to ‘immoral’ right. The refrain of the 1930s protest song, covered by Billy Bragg in 1991, is a classic articulation of this:
“Which side are you on, boys?
Which side are you on?”
By saying there’s a moral spectrum which the left are at the ‘good’ end of, the Dark Knight lays the groundwork for an ‘In-group’ versus ‘Out-group’ dynamic. The transition from spectrum to binary is automatic, occurring as soon as you draw a line across the spectrum by asking, on this policy or that, ‘Are you with us or against?’ If they’re ‘against’, or even unsure, you can legitimately conclude that they’re less moral – cutting to the quick of a person’s character. A cleft is created from here onwards, which can only grow. The image below visualises the journey from spectrum to binary.
The ‘social fascism’ accusation
Historically, one of the most striking examples of the Dark Knight is the concept of ‘social fascism’. The phrase dates to 1924, when it was coined as a term of abuse by The Communist International, and directed at others on the left. The claim was that democratic socialism – and any non-communist form of left politics – was interchangeable with fascism.[i] Stalin himself wrote that “social democracy is objectively the moderate wing of fascism… They are not antipodes, they are twins.”[ii]
The ‘social fascism’ accusation was subsequently levelled at non-communist left-wingers in many countries.[iii] However, the idea came to real prominence in Germany in the early 1930s. Led by Ernst Thälmann, German communists refused to unite with other left-wingers in attacking Nazism. They maintained that the German Social Democratic Party were ‘social fascists’: identical to Nazism in their goals, only better disguised. Leon Trotsky pointed out that the social democrats were a “lesser evil,” who communists could tolerate and cooperate with, without softening their own demands.[iv] He was himself accused by Thälmann of closet fascism.
The ‘social fascism’ concept sat alongside another element of communist thought at the time, which was the notion of ‘class on class’ combat– with those who didn’t support communism seen as enemies of the working-classes. Because most of Europe’s working-classes were members of social democratic or socialist parties, not communist ones, this approach split the left “consigning to an enemy class the organisations which contained the vast majority of workers.” Trotsky himself complained of the “shrill and empty leftism” which stopped the communists from reaching out to working-class social democrats.[v]
The consequence was that German communists focused so much on undermining social democrats that they largely ignored the Nazis, even after Hitler’s 1933 capture of power. In fact, a few supported the rise of Hitler, believing undisguised fascism would be more straightforward to combat than ‘social’ fascism.[vi] The net outcomes for leftism, once the Nazis took control, were disastrous. Historian and former communist Theodore Draper sums up what happened:
The Communist party was officially outlawed on March 31st; the trade unions were smashed in May; the social democratic party was banned on June 22nd. Thereafter, Hitler made no distinction between communists and social democrats; he took their lives, cast them into concentration camps or, if they were lucky, drove them into exile.
Despite this, German communists continued for some time to maintain that fascism and social democracy were interchangeable. In June 1933 they passed a motion:
The complete exclusion of the social-fascists from the state apparatus, and the brutal suppression even of social democratic organizations and their press, does not in any way alter the fact that social democracy is now, as before, the chief support of the capitalist dictatorship.
It was not until two years after, when experiencing the enormity of fascist rule, that the German Communist Party abandoned this line.
There were several ideas wrapped up in the ‘social fascism’ concept. For starters, there was the belief that social democracy was a legitimising ‘front’ for fascism and all things right-wing. Hence social democracy was actually worse than fascism, because it disguised what it was; you had to defeat social democracy before you could defeat fascism.[vii] This escalated further, to the view that fascism was preferable to social democracy,[viii] because you at least knew where you stood.[ix] The logical endpoint was the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of non-aggression between Stalin and Hitler.
The ‘social fascism’ accusation held not just that the consequences of fascism and social democracy were identical, but that the aims were also the same. Both, communists claimed, were motivated by evil goals.[x] In the process, the concept grouped together creeds which were very different, conflating social democracy, fascism and industrial capitalism. Thus, as Draper puts it, ‘social fascism’ came to be little more than “a catch-all for Communism’s enemies and opponents from moderate Left to far Right.”
I don’t dredge this up to imply that the contemporary left is packed with Stalinist zealots, but because it demonstrates the risk of the Dark Knight dynamic. The rise and fall of the ‘social fascism’ accusation showed – in a context where the stakes had never been higher – how self-defeating moral binaries are.
‘Social fascism’ started from the assumption that communism was the only political articulation of moral goodness (the White Knight). It amalgamated everything non-communist into a single embodiment of evil (the Dark Knight). Its basis was that politics is a battle of us and them (‘class on class’), and that if you’re not with us to the letter then you’re with them. The consequence was that working-class anti-fascists were ‘Out-grouped’ and their political spokespeople trashed.
This was happening at a point where a handful of evil individuals were loitering in the wings, primed to seize power. By casting a wide net, the left might have done a better job of combatting Nazism.
This is, of course, one for the writers of alternative histories. And the behaviour of the social democrats isn’t without its own issues. Those on the left point out the violent suppression, by the social democrats, of a communist protest in 1929.[xi]
But there can be no doubt the ‘social fascist’ accusation did more harm than good. However well-meaning German communists were, their willingness to impugn the motives of political neighbours put them on the wrong side of history.
There are other instances, in communist doctrines, of the Dark Knight myth letting the best defeat the good, or even of it becoming the ally of the worst (‘impossibilism, ‘accelerationism’, and opposition to charity are good examples).[xii] But this essay isn’t a critique of communism itself, so we won’t go into these. ‘Social fascism’ merely offers, as we start to investigate the Dark Knight, the starkest of cautionary tales.
In his 1998 memoir Things Can Only Get Better, John O’Farrell humorously describes student discussions about the 1980s Labour leadership, where he was trying to impress a left-wing crowd:[xiii]
There had been me thinking Jim Callaghan was one of the good guys, when it turned out he was just a TOR-y. The word ‘Tory’ had its own pronunciation back then – the ‘TOR’ part lasted about three seconds. Merlyn Rees? TOR-y! Denis Healey? TOR-y! David Owens? TOR-y! Whenever a Labour politician’s name was mentioned I would pause to see which way the wind was blowing.
“Yeah, I wonder what would happen if they had Tony Benn as leader?” I volunteered, before pausing to see where he fitted into the scheme of things…
“TOR-y?” I asked nervously.
“Tony Benn? A Tory? What are you talking about?”
O’Farrell’s account recalls 1980s Labour politics at its loopy nadir. Yet as the ‘social fascism’ example shows, the thinking behind the ‘TOR-y’ accusation wasn’t a one off. The belief in a moral ‘In-group’ has often afflicted the left, returning with a vengeance in recent years.
Let’s take, as a case study, left populist writer Owen Jones. Jones has written two bestselling non-fiction books, Chavs and The Establishment, both of which became set texts for a generation of leftist millennials. His backing of Corbyn in 2015 gave others the confidence to do the same.
Jones’ books are characterised by a determination to prove the 1997-2010 governments were not just closer to the centre than Jones’ own position – nor that they failed in many of their goals – but that they were as right-wing (and thus, in Jones’ eyes, as immoral) as the Tories and Ukip.
The Establishment pushes home the idea New Labour was “on a collision course with the party’s traditional values,” populated by those who “believed in little – except, in some cases, money.”[xiv] The top ‘New Labour’ listings in the index are “Kowtowing to big business from”, “Embrace of Thatcherite agenda by”, “Privatisation of the NHS by”, and “Fawning over The City by”.
In Chavs, meanwhile, politicians from the last Labour government are described as “steeped in middle-class triumphalism” and determined to prove the working-classes were “on the wrong side of history.”[xv] Some MPs, Jones explains, would be more at home in the Tory party.[xvi] He claims Labour ministers sought to prove “people are poor because they lack moral fibre,”[xvii] and describes Alan Johnson as determined to blame working-class boys for their own failure.[xviii]
There’s no positive mention of the 1997-2010 governments in either book, with Labour policies presented as interchangeable with the Tories.[xix] When mentioning Labour achievements is unavoidable, Jones suggests they were accidental, insufficient, or window dressing for a reactionary agenda. On the minimum wage, for instance, he argues that Tony Blair opposed it in secret.[xx]
One technique is to choose a soundbite by – or about – a former minister, and use it as a catch-all for the policy platform. The first part of Peter Mandelson’s rhetorical (and foolish) claim to be “intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich as long as they pay their taxes” is used in both books, as a proxy for the entire New Labour approach to redistribution. It comes instead of a nuanced analysis of Labour’s mixed record on inequality, and in lieu of suggestions for how they might have tackled the problem better.[xxi]
Meanwhile, Labour politicians during the period are represented, almost without exception, as corrupt and personally malign.[xxii] Centre leftists of the period are invariably slick, perma-tanned and clad in shiny suits, with expense claims or black marks against their integrity mentioned as an aside. Moral lapses by populists are ignored, by contrast, and those who share Jones’ politics are presented as soft-spoken and unassuming, with good deeds and humble backgrounds alluded to in parentheses.[xxiii] The argument is that everyone bar the far left is driven by interchangeably malign intent, be they David Blunkett, Nick Clegg, Michael Gove or Nigel Farage.
Of course, there are many reasons to criticise the 1997-2010 Labour governments. A constructive left-wing appraisal – one which doesn’t rely on our myths – would be welcome.[xxiv]
And it’s obviously important to flag corruption in high places – as long as this is consistent, and doesn’t ally one ideology with moral purity and the rest with naked venality.
Yet Chavs and The Establishment do neither of these things, and instead present the centre left as White Knights who’ve joined the Dark side.[xxv] New Labour are vain sell-outs and spiteful charlatans, according to Jones – with their alleged personal failings attributed directly to their politics. When describing three MPs caught exchanging money for influence, Jones writes that it was “hardly a coincidence” they were Blairites.[xxvi] One wonders how he’d feel if Tony Benn’s exploitation of tax loopholes was used in the same way, to suggest the far left were inherently self-interested.[xxvii]
Having championed the Dark Knight approach, what’s striking about the Owen Jones story is that – for a period – he was pushed into the very ‘Out-group’ he’d helped create. Having blamed every centre left criticism of Corbyn on treachery and self-interest, he began to have qualms of his own. He outlined his reservations in a 2016 blog, beginning with a request that he be taken at face value:[xxviii]
It has become increasingly common in politics to reduce disagreements to bad faith. Rather than accepting somebody has a different perspective because, well, that’s what they think, you look for an ulterior motive instead. Everything from self-aggrandisement to careerism to financial corruption to the circles in which the other person moves: any explanation but an honest disagreement. It becomes a convenient means of avoiding talking about substance.
He added, “I’ve spent my entire adult life in socialist politics… and I’m now being attacked as a Blairite, crypto-Tory and Establishment stooge.”
Despite this reminder that ‘Blairites’ were the real enemy, many left populists ignored this, accusing him of self-interest, spinelessness or closet conservatism.[xxix] He eventually worked his way back into the ‘In-group’ a year later, via a flurry of anti-‘centrist’ articles.
Owen Jones’ approach here is inconsistent to say the least. He’s done more than anyone to suggest others in Labour lack progressive values and basic morals, yet he asks to be immune from the same accusations by those to his own left. But the deeper point is about the Dark Knight dynamic. The accusation that Jones is a right-winger shows (like the accusation that Trotsky was a fascist) how farcical the myth can be.
The parallels with ‘social fascism’ are real. The sustained use, by left populists, of morally pejorative, catch-all terms for everyone they disagree with – ‘centrist’[xxx] ‘neoliberal’, ‘Blairite’, ‘establishment politician’[xxxi] – serves the same role as the ‘social fascist’ allegation. Likewise, constant claims that left pluralists are ‘Tory lite’ or ‘Red Tories’. All these words do is provide a shorthand to suggest neighbours are enemies. At a point when some genuinely dangerous authoritarians again hold or seek office (Trump, Maduro, Putin, Le Pen, Matteo Salvini etc) the risks of this are serious.
Lifelong Labour activists – who have been cast by Jones as self-serving and right-wing – might have felt a stab of pleasure upon seeing Jones’ hypocrisy exposed. But the Dark Knight phenomenon doesn’t end here. The far left may be steeped in the sectarianism of the Dark Knight myth, but the truth is that milder Dark Knight assumptions permeate far beyond the Owen Jones clique. Many of us on the left have, at points, played a role, indulging in Manichean myths and moral binaries which, as we’re now seeing, have the capacity to eat themselves.
Instead of simply objecting when the Dark Knight myth is turned on us, the centre left must recognise that the idea of politics as a moral continuum is wrong wherever it’s applied.
[ii] ‘The International Situation’, International Press Correspondence, Joseph Stalin, October 23, 1924, pp. 838-39.
[iii] In the UK, Harry Pollitt, the head of the Communist Party, wrote that “The Labour party is the most dangerous enemy of the workers because it is a disguised party of capitalism.”
[vii]Otto Kuusinen, a Finnish member of the Communist International, said that unmasking ‘social fascism’ proving that it was undisguised ‘pure fascism’ was the most important goal. And Fritz Heckert claimed that “the path toward the annihilation of fascism…can only be the path that leads via the organizational and ideological abolition of the influence of Social-Democracy.”
[viii] The Communist International declared in 1933 that “The establishment of an open fascist dictatorship, by destroying all the democratic illusions among the masses and liberating them from the influence of Social-Democracy, accelerates the rate of Germany's development toward proletarian revolution.”
[ix] John Pilger’s support for Donald Trump ahead of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton is a modern example of how this way of thinking continues to infect left-wing thought. This is similarly true when we look at some left populist criticism of the French election of 2017. Former Corbyn staffer Matt Zarb-Cousin described Macron as akin to – and a cause of – Le Pen’s far right movement, and left-wing French intellectual Slavoj Žižek suggested the two were interchangeable.
[x] The German Communist Party’s Wilhelm Piek said that “The Social-Democrats are in favour of fascisation, provided the parliamentary form is preserved.”
[xii] Impossibilism and Transitional Demands: the deliberate setting of unachievable goals, so as to prove the impossibility of cooperating with capitalism in any way, and encourage the conclusion that communism is the only answer. Accelerationism: the idea that capitalism “should be deepened or ‘accelerated’ in order to prompt radical change”. Opposition to charity: an objection “on the grounds that such organisations [as charities] are merely trying to deal with the symptoms of capitalism rather than capitalism itself” (Robert Tressell’s The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists made this suggestion).
[xiv] The Establishment, p.78.
[xvii] Here Jones treats a 2008 quote from James Purnell as representative of Labour’s entire programme (see Chavs, p. 94). Labour’s primary welfare scheme for young people was the 1998 New Deal, a ten year work programme to invest in opportunities for 18-24 year-olds, which was funded through a £5 billion pound tax on public utilities companies. There are some questions about how effective it was (although the JRF were fairly positive in reviewing it). For sure, it is not a silver bullet solution. And there’s some truth in what Jones says, in that New Labour’s policies were often done through ‘partnership’ between state and citizen – i.e. the provision of extra funding to learn new skills, on the condition that people turn up to meetings. But the idea that it sought, as Jones suggests, to “demonize the poorest,” is deeply misrepresentative. Indeed, The New Deal isn’t mentioned by name once in Chavs – despite being one of the most obvious policies to look at in relation to Jones’ chosen topic.
[xix] There’s no reference in Chavs – a book about working-class life chances – of 4,000 SureStart centres, legal holiday entitlements of 20 days, the Employment Relations Act, tax credits, EMA, trebled school spending, a million children out of poverty, another million pensioners, Child Trust Funds, increased university uptake, four-fold hospital waiting list reductions, or the shortening of inequality between the top and bottom 20%. The implication is either that these things don’t matter, or that the Conservatives under William Hague, Iain Duncan-Smith, Michael Howard or a young David Cameron would have done them anyway.
[xx] The Establishment, p.78.
[xxi] As well as in his books and articles, Jones used the foreword to the pamphlet of the 2015 Equality Trust conference to again cite Mandelson’s quote (a statement which was by then nearly twenty years-old, and which Mandelson has himself disavowed). “Does inequality matter? The leading lights of New Labour certainly thought not…” Jones briefly comes close to a deeper analysis in Chavs (p. 205), but doesn’t get much further than the conclusion that, while marginally better than the Tories, Labour’s inequality record was still bad. There’s an important conversation to be had about Labour achievements on economic inequality, which were reasonable compared to overall global trends, but nevertheless mixed. As we’ll discuss later, significant inequality reductions in the gap between the richest 10% and the poorest did take place. But a failure to address the top 1% undermined much of this. Yet Jones at no point proposes any policy solution to high pay, fixing at all times on the ill intentions of those who have failed.
[xxii] David Miliband is just one example of this. He’s described as a “profiteering politician…not known for his lack of self-regard,” who was disdainful of “remaining a ‘mere’ constituency politician – representing the concerns of a deprived North East constituency.” Jones argues that Miliband saw politics as “a launchpad,” providing “prestige which made him attractive to members of the economic elite.” Unsurprisingly, there’s no mention of Miliband teaching politics unpaid at a comprehensive school while on the backbenches, or of the fact he left politics to work for a humanitarian charity.
[xxiii] While Ken Livingstone is relied upon as a character witness in both books, for instance, the former London Mayor’s avoidance of £240,000 a year in tax is never spoken of. Len McCluskey, meanwhile, is described as a “proud Scouser” who could “hardly look or sound less Establishment.” There’s no mention of the low-rate loan taken by Len McCluskey from his own union to buy a house in 1994. Nor of the £400,000 paid by the union to help McCluskey buy a £700,000 flat in London Bridge – nor of the fact that McCluskey earns more than any government minister. Likewise, the peccadillos of others, from George Galloway to Diane Abbott to Ian Lavery to Michael Meacher, are not mentioned. Likewise, Jones has attacked the ‘nepotism’ of centre left MP Angela Smith, while never, to my knowledge, commenting on the fact Jeremy Corbyn’s son was given a job within his inner circle. I don’t raise any of this in order to muck-rake, but merely to point out that if you’re going to expose the misdeeds of those in power then you need to do so even-handedly.
[xxiv] There are critiques from the left of New Labour, of course. See The Verdict: Did Labour Change Britain? by Polly Toynbee, Ten Years of New Labour by Matt Beech, or Social Policy in a Cold Climate by the LSE. But it’s hard to find one from the far left – the Corbynite left – which doesn’t, on some level, rely on the three myths.
[xxv] Elsewhere, for instance, Jones implies that the likes of Alan Milburn are not just ‘centre leftists’ or even ‘centrists’, but are interchangeable with the likes of Melanie Phillips and Peter Hitchens. ‘Peter Hitchens got me thinking: do lefties always have to turn right in old age?’ Owen Jones, Guardian, 2015.
[xxvi] The Establishment, p.73.
[xxvii] Tony Benn reportedly gave a multi-million inheritance to his children via a tax loopholes but left nothing to the Labour Party – a decision widely reported in the right-wing press. A number of ‘tax planning’ companies have subsequently written approvingly of the scheme – which is technically legal – encouraging others to take the same steps.
[xxviii] See ‘Questions all Jeremy Corbyn supporters need to answer’, Owen Jones, Medium, 2016. This was a theme Jones warmed to and returned to once he’d been ‘Out-grouped’, writing on a range of platforms that differences of opinion should not be put down to ulterior motives.
[xxix] Trade Unionist Manuel Cortes was particularly ready to take the bait, penning a Huffington Post article that epitomises almost every element of the Dark Knight myth – accusing Jones of both cowardice and traitory (although not going so far as to use the dreaded ‘Blairite’ slur). “I would not like to be in a trench alongside Owen under heavy shelling,” Cortes writes, adding “It is a moment for solidarity, not back-stabbing.” He suggests Jones appeased the Corbyn coup, and ends by asking who Jones intends to vote for, to establish whether he’s “jumped the shark” or not. This is a classic, Dark Knight cry of ‘Which side are you on?’ On twitter, meanwhile, responses were even sillier, with Jones accused of being “Worse than The Daily Mail” and accusations of Israeli plots abounding.
[xxx] As Helen Lewis points out, almost no one identifies as a centrist (any more than they’d identify as a ‘social fascist’): “The term has increasingly been used to split the political spectrum up into good guys, ‘Actual Nazis’, and undecideds who sit between the two.” For others, centrism combines “social liberalism and anti-Brexitism with support for cuts, privatisation and a pro-corporate agenda” – not to mention “a hawkish military posture” an appetite for “murderous, never-ending bloody chaos in Iraq” the xenophobic right. This definition conflates MPs like Jess Phillips – a woman who wants to see the whole country nationalised – with the likes of George Osborne. Red Pepper magazine describes centrism as “the belief that in the great battle between good and evil, both sides make some valid points.” And a prominent pro-Corbyn blogger writes that “When you say ‘I’m a centrist’ I hear: I don't mind austerity dogma because I'm not the one suffering it; Fuck disabled people, fuck young people, fuck the poor, because I'm comfortable; I'm a right-winger who pretends not to be right-wing.’
[xxxi] David Wearing, for example, wrote in The Guardian during Labour’s 2016 leadership contest, that “We assume that the dividing line between conservatives and progressives falls between the two main parties – but it now runs through Labour’s heart… This is the real struggle taking place in the party now: … between conservatives and progressives.”