Comment: Can you really be a fascist without being a racist?

Sabby Dhalu: 'Whilst there is a difference between the two terms, historically fascist regimes and organisations have been linked with the most violent and aggressive forms of racism.'
Sabby Dhalu: 'Whilst there is a difference between the two terms, historically fascist regimes and organisations have been linked with the most violent and aggressive forms of racism.'

By Sabby Dhalu

Paulo Di Canio's appointment as manager of Sunderland has triggered a strange debate about the meaning of 'fascism' and 'racism' and whether there is a difference between the two.

Di Canio infamously said in 2005 that he was a fascist but not a racist. Whilst there is a difference between the two terms, historically fascist regimes and organisations have been linked with the most violent and aggressive forms of racism.

One should begin with defining fascism and racism. Firstly regarding fascism several political leaders, writers and academics have sought to define the term. US president Franklin D. Roosevelt defined fascism as follows: "The first truth is that the liberty of a democracy is not safe if the people tolerate the growth of private power to a point where it becomes stronger than their democratic state itself. That, in its essence, is fascism — ownership of government by an individual, by a group, or by any other controlling private power."


John Weiss, a professor of history at Wayne State University, sought to give a definition of fascism in his book, The Fascist Tradition: Radical Right-Wing Extremism in Modern Europe. He arrived at a list of ideas that he believed to be shared by the majority of the people commonly referred to as fascists: organicist conceptions of community; philosophical idealism; Idealisation of "manly" (usually peasant or village) virtues; a resentment of mass democracy; elitist conceptions of political and social leadership; racism (and usually, though not necessarily, anti-semitism); militarism; imperialism.

Marxist definitions of fascism link it with capitalism. In 1935 the Communist International published the following definition: "Fascism in power is the open, terroristic dictatorship of the most reactionary, the most chauvinistic, the most imperialistic elements of finance capitalism."

Leon Trotsky described fascism as: "The historic function of fascism is to smash the working class, destroy its organisations, and stifle political liberties when the capitalists find themselves unable to govern and dominate with the help of democratic machinery."

Secondly regarding racism, the Oxford dictionary defines racism as: "The belief that all members of each race possess characteristics, abilities, or qualities specific to that race, especially so as to distinguish it as inferior or superior to another race or races: theories of racism prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one's own race is superior."

Racism was and still is used to justify imperialism, colonialism and slavery by portraying the victims of such regimes as inferior to the white population in imperialist countries. A recent example is how racism was directed at Muslim communities to justify the unpopular war on Iraq, widely seen as the US's attempt to increase its control over Middle East oil.

Therefore whilst racism and fascism are different from one another, in that racism has and still does occur without the development of fascism, the experience of fascism in power is that it is intrinsically linked to imperialism and racism. Two notorious examples of fascism's rise to power are Hitler's Nazi Germany and Mussolini's Italy.

Around fifteen million people were murdered under Nazi occupation, this included six million Jewish people, and also Gypsies, Slavs, Roma communities, disabled people and others.

The German colonial empire officially ended with the effective date of the Treaty of Versailles on January 10th 1920 after its defeat in the First World War. German occupation of its colonies was notably brutal. Namibia was the scene of massacres against the Herero people, the Nama people and others. In Tanganyika there was a resistance (the Maji Maji rebellion) in the centre of the country led by the peoples who had been affected by the invasion of Ngoni peoples spread out from the revolution led by Shaka the Zulu. Many of the perpetrators of the massacres became prominent Nazis after the First World War.

While black people in Nazi Germany and German-occupied territories were not subject to systematic elimination, they were victimised in diverse ways. Anti-black racism existed in Germany prior to the rise of the Nazi government, with mixed race children facing social and economic discrimination, and blacks became a target of Nazi eugenics by 1937, with many facing compulsory sterilisation. Others became the victims of human experimentation, assassination, or false imprisonment (including American citizens Valaida Snow and Josef Nassy), and some simply vanished. Black prisoners of war were sometimes killed outright or through the poor treatment they received in Nazi concentration or prisoner-of-war camps, while others were worked to death.

Whilst there was not the mass genocide of communities under Mussolini's Italy, it carried out a brutal invasion of Ethiopia. Emperor Haile Selassie was forced to flee the country, with Italy entering the capital Addis Ababa to proclaim an empire by May 1936, making Ethiopia part of Italian East Africa. Italy was criticised for its use of mustard gas and phosgene against its enemies and also for its zero tolerance approach to enemy guerrillas, allegedly authorised by Mussolini.

Benito Mussolini also said: "[When the] city dies, the nation—deprived of the young life-blood of new generations—is now made up of people who are old and degenerate and cannot defend itself against a younger people which launches an attack on the now unguarded frontiers [...] This will happen, and not just to cities and nations, but on an infinitely greater scale: the whole white race, the western race can be submerged by other coloured races which are multiplying at a rate unknown in our race."

Historian Christopher Duggan, a professor of modern Italian history at the University of Reading argues that "Mussolini suppressed freedom, brutally suppressed opponents, clamped down on all rights and had racial laws which were quite central to the ideology of fascism, not imposed from outside."

Perhaps more importantly, the cutting edge of Italian fascism today, as indeed in other European countries, is racism. In particular, actions by the Lega Nord (Northern League) have been criticised as xenophobic or racist by several sources.

In November 2012 a section of Roma and Lazio supporters connected to the far-right violently attacked a group of English Tottenham Hotspur supporters, because of the club's connection to London's Jewish communities. This indicates how dangerous Di Canio's comments and right arm salute to Lazio supporters in 2005 are.

It is not true that Italian fascism was not racist, as some have argued this week, and it is very difficult to be a fascist and not a racist.

Sabby Dhalu is joint secretary of Unite Against Fascism and has been a leading activist in the anti-racist movement for over a decade.

The opinions in politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.

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