by Robert Griffiths,
EIighty years ago, fascism was on the march across Europe as well as North America and Japan. Fascist dictatorships had already taken root in Italy, Portugal and Germany.
The prisons were being filled with communists, socialists, liberals, trade unionists and others who dared to defy barbarism.
In nazi Germany, the persecution of Jewish citizens had begun in earnest. Sterilisation and euthanasia programmes aimed at people with disabilities would later be joined by the mass extermination of Jews, Roma and homosexuals.
In Spain, General Franco and other rightwing military officers launched a rebellion in July 1936 against the Popular Front government of socialists, social democrats and republicans elected five months earlier.
As the fascist powers prepared to aid Franco, the newly elected French Popular Front and British Conservative governments hoped to prevent it through a multilateral policy of non-intervention.
Knowing that Hitler and Mussolini could not be trusted, the Soviet Union instead urged the League of Nations to take action against fascist aggression.
But the main capitalist powers preferred to appease and collaborate with the fascist dictatorships rather than confront them.
The Communist International called upon the world’s communist parties to recruit volunteers to fight in Spain. The first International Brigades arrived in October 1936.
At least 40,000 communists and socialists from 53 countries went to defend Spanish democracy, some 4,000 of them from Britain. Many thousands died there.
Meanwhile in Britain, Sir Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists marched through Jewish and working-class areas, promising to smash high finance and communism, both of which were claimed to be “Jewish.”
With Britain’s Communist Party to the fore, most of the left united and mobilised to drive back the BUF Blackshirts. Victory in the Battle of Cable Street did not stop all Blackshirt activity, even in the East End, but it dealt the fascists a psychological blow from which they didn’t recover.
Fascist expansionism in Europe eventually forced the the governments of Britain and France to declare war against Nazi Germany and its allies in September 1939. Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union two years later finally convinced all communists that this was no longer a struggle between rival imperialist powers, but a war for humanity, democracy and socialism against barbarism.
Why did communists, socialists and — in Spain — many anarchists fight fascism so resolutely, even entering into alliances with capitalist politicians and their governments?
Communists and other revolutionaries understood that fascism was an anti-democratic, nationalist and — in most cases — racist movement that might receive the support of big industrialists, bankers and landowners in periods of acute crisis.
The ruling class might cast democratic rights aside in order to suppress the threat posed by communist, socialist and trade union organisations. This is what happened in the aftermath of the imperialist Great War (1914-18) and the Great Depression (1929-31) as the anti-capitalist left gained ground rapidly in conditions of severe economic and social dislocation.
Backed by sections of the mass media, fascism used extreme nationalism and racism to mobilise the middle strata and divert and divide the working class, including the poor and unemployed.
Since then, the ruling class in most developed countries has perfected its use of propaganda and parliamentary politics to undermine, marginalise or incorporate protest movements without turning to fascism.
But unbridled neoliberal economics, the 2008 banking crash, austerity and disillusionment with Establishment politics have boosted the xenophobic and racist far right.
Through Nato and the EU, the Western imperialist powers have been banging the war drums against Russia and China, even assisting nationalists and fascists to overthrow a democratically elected government in Ukraine.
Today, the challenge for the left is not only to unite against militarism, racism and xenophobia with their scapegoats. It is also to expose the role of big business and its monopolised “free markets,” right-wing governments and EU and put forward an alternative left-wing programme which meets the needs of workers and their families.
Robert Griffiths is general secretary of the Communist Party and a contributor to 21centurymanifesto