Review: Histories of Fascism and Anti-Fascism in Australia

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In the past eight years, far-right movements and openly fascist groups have risen and ebbed. First they attacked Muslims and then immigrants of colour, Jews, First Nations, unionists, radicals, transpeople and queers. Each time, they’ve been met with organised resistance.

Histories of Fascism and Anti-Fascism in Australia was released early this year in the heat of relentless, orchestrated threats against queer events and drag story times. Two weeks before the book’s Melbourne launch, Posie Parker toured Australia and Aotearoa/New Zealand. Playing on transphobic scaremongering by the über right, this globe-trotting TERF (Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminist) from the UK came with a mission to recruit anti-trans feminists. Outside the Victorian Parliament, sieg heiling Nazis joined her tiny turnout, while cops held the much larger number from trans and queer communities and their defenders at bay.

The reaction that’s now oozing from the pustules of a rotting economic system is not abating. Only the array of its targets, striking as a unified force, can stem it. To do this, we need to know what we’re fighting, and history provides invaluable tools.

Older generations recollect fascist and extreme-right activity stretching over several decades. And this is the point of the book: to show that what we’ve experienced these past few years has a history — going back to Australia’s establishment as a white settler state.

Sixteen contributors, including editors Evan Smith, Jayne Persian and Vashti Jane Fox, bring to life some of this history from the 1920s to the 2019 mosque massacre in Christchurch, Aotearoa. All are academics or researchers. Padraic Gibson and Fox are also leading members of socialist organisations, Solidarity and Socialist Alternative respectively.

The editors’ stated aim is to show how fascism and far-right movements materialised in Australia at critical points throughout the century and how it has been confronted. As a socialist feminist involved in Melbourne’s anti-fascist organising since the 1990s, including the formation of Campaign Against Racism and Fascism (CARF) as a united front to counter the fascist and far-right resurgence in 2015, I wanted to check out this book.

White settler state beckons fascists. White supremacism is a dominant theme of this book. Implanted by the British invaders, enforced by the colonial authorities and enshrined in the White Australia Policy of the newly federated nation in 1901, the “protection” of the white race underpins the laws and actions of this settler state. Several contributors demonstrate how this has enabled fascist and far-right groups — be they World War II Nazi exiles, British imperial nationalists or homegrown rightwingers like Pauline Hanson.

Jordan McSwiney, Eda Gunaydin and Henry Maher expose the rhetoric of “western civilisation” and its extolling of “culture” and “values,” which is so common in parliamentary debate and mainstream commentary. Barely disguising its racist meaning, it also gives cover to far-right “west is best” propagandists — such as Stefan Molyneux and Lauren Southern, who spoke in Australia in 2018, protected by Nazis — and open fascists like the Proud Boys.

And while the White Australia Policy is officially dead, it still lives — most brutally in the treatment of refugees and First Nations. Anastasia Kanjere explains border “defence” as “an elemental moment for the legitimisation of the very existence of the white settler state.” She goes on: “Through protecting from external threat, the white settler colonial nation can guard against the ever-present anxiety of the threat of Indigenous sovereignty.” In this context, Kanjere characterises fascism as “an operative part of an ecosystem of white supremacy” — it’s inevitable.

That fascism in Australia is an ongoing, internationally connected threat is important to understand. Contributors meticulously document examples of this. We watch how, during the Depression, the anti-communist paramilitary New Guard attempted to oust the New South Wales (NSW) Labor government of Jack Lang, bringing the state to the brink of civil war. Lang’s plan to suspend interest payments on overseas loans rocked the business establishment and mobilised the predominantly small business base of the New Guard. The Loveday Internment Camp in South Australia was a hotbed of Italian fascism in 1942. After World War II, British and Australian fascists collaborated to protect the heritage of the British empire, which they feared was endangered by non-white immigration. The war also produced emigrations of Nazis and other ultra-nationalists from Central Europe. Cold War Australia was a staging ground for internationally connected emigre groups from Croatia and Hungary. The Croatian Ustasha movement, which collaborated with Hitler and Mussolini during the Second World War, carried out terrorist acts in Australia in the 1960s and ‘70s. Hungarian Nazis interacted with their Australian counterparts on the basis of a shared anti-communism and white supremacism. In the 1980s aftermath of the Vietnam War, we see anti-Asian terror in Western Australia being carried out by the Australian Nationalists Movement, headed by Jack Van Tongeren.

Resistance and solidarity. The pieces that strike me most are those of Phoebe Kelloway and Padraic Gibson on workers’ anti-fascist organising in NSW and Melbourne, respectively. In the first half of the 1930s, almost a third of NSW unionists were unemployed, evictions were commonplace and hunger was widespread. Coal bosses locked out workers, scab labour was everywhere and police protection was violent. The Arbitration Court ruled against strikes and for a 10% wage cut, and the reformist union movement leadership was useless. Fascists were organising, targeting unionists and communists. In the face of all this, combative workers’ “armies,” organised by the Communist Party, Labor Party and unions, counter-organised and fought back.

Gibson describes the internationalist solidarity of trade unions and First Nations at Melbourne’s demonstration on 27 February 1935 to mark the second anniversary of the Reichstag fire. Leading the march was Egon Kisch, a Jewish Czech communist who was representing the World Council Against War and Fascism.

Gibson highlights the importance of the First Nations presence, which he says is probably the first publicly advertised Aboriginal contingent at a workers’ demonstration in Australian history. Its place at the head of the march was a statement linking the brutal repressions of workers in Germany and Australia’s First Nations. The year before, the Australian Aborigines League (AAL) had been launched as a self-determining organisation to fight the state “protection” system and petition for representation in the Australian parliament. In 1938, AAL leader William Cooper would lead an Aboriginal delegation to the German Consulate in Melbourne to protest the persecution of Jews in the pogroms of Kristallnacht.

But what is fascism? It’s perplexing that nowhere in the book is fascism explained. Andrew Moore touches on various Marxist versus liberal theories, but leaves it in the air as something “incoherent and protean [continuously changing], reshaping itself according to circumstances.”

There’s more to fascism than that! The events in Europe a century ago inform us that, when it is imperilled, capitalism will resort to brutal force to save itself from workers’ revolt. We saw fascism in power, and we know the conditions that brought it to power. Pogroms and concentration camps made clear that the capitalist class would stop at nothing. We also have the definitive analysis of Marxists to help us examine beneath fascism’s seemingly “incoherent and protean” surface and counter-organise to stop it.

To know what fascism is, we then know what it isn’t. The book also doesn’t explain the distinction between fascism and the far right. On Hanson, for example, the editors note that her One Nation party is different from the fascist and extreme right parties under discussion, but they don’t say how. Fascists and the far right both show the bare teeth of capitalism in distress. This way, they interact and share similar outward characteristics. But fascism is a mass movement giving big capital the power to sweep aside parliamentary democracy, establish order and literally enslave the working class. This distinction is crucial.

To understand fascism as a creature of capitalism is to appreciate that white supremacism isn’t the only weapon in its arsenal. The profit system equally relies on sexism and class exploitation to survive. Fascism restores the patriarchal family to reproduce workers and enforce cisgender, binary, heterosexist “norms.” Policies enforced by Nazi Germany and fascist Italy to control women’s fertility and send queers to death camps show how central this is. Also targeted are people considered as an unproductive drain on the economy — poor, homeless and with disabilities. Unions are crushed. Revolutionary organisation is annihilated.

Exposing National Action as fascist was key to the united campaign which drove them from Fawkner. Photo from FSO archives.

How to fight it: the united front. As the editors state, “there has never been a singular, politically homogenous anti-fascist movement in Australian history.” We need one! It’s called a united front of unions, the Left and all targets of fascism.

And from history we find examples of its potential. In his work on anti-fascist organising in Melbourne in 1935, Gibson underscores a “sentiment to build genuine united front activity against fascism and war,” which he says “was palpable across the rank and file of the workers movement in many countries at this time, driven by the feeling of existential threat created by the rise of the Nazis and smashing of the German workers movement.” Histories’ introduction mentions “various individuals and organisations,” who fought with determination to kick National Action (NA) out of Melbourne in the 1990s. This was actually a united front of socialist groups and unionists which, as Brunswick Against the Nazis, was instrumental in running an NA rally out of Brunswick in 1994. Re-formed as Campaign Against the Nazis (CAN) in 1997 to face off NA again, its solid organising over 15 months successfully forced the Nazis to pack up their Fawkner “bookshop” and leave Melbourne for good.

In 2015, Campaign Against Racism and Fascism formed, as Histories says, to deal with the far-right Reclaim Australia. But the editors’ description of CARF as “an attempt by Socialist Alternative and other activists” to achieve this is misleading. CARF began as a united front of socialist, anarchist, First Nations justice and international union solidarity organisations as well as individuals active in social justice and their unions. Over months of democratic debate, CARF developed principles of agreement, which enabled the politically divergent groups and activists to unify around this common cause. In a united front, differences are respected, and everyone works collaboratively and accountably around the points of unity.

Socialist Alternative (SAlt) came into CARF after its formation. SAlt opposes the united front, and over time its undemocratic operating drove people out. Freedom Socialist Party, Radical Women and two other founding groups stayed to fight against this tide until it was clear that the united front could not be salvaged. CARF still operates under the control of SAlt.

The united front remains the only way to galvanise the superior power of fascism’s targets and throttle this persistent threat. The union movement is vital for this front, because this melting pot is where we organise as workers.

Histories gives us important, detailed accounts of past fascist and anti-fascist organising in Australia, and it positions this globally. To understand fascism and how to destroy it, more reading is necessary. I recommend Building Unity Against Fascism: Classic Marxist Writings. Freedom Socialist Party and Radical Women will jointly host a reading circle on this latter book, starting in October. Stay tuned!

Histories of Fascism and Anti-Fascism in Australia (Routledge 2023) and Building Unity Against Fascism: Classic Marxist Writings (Resistance Books London, 2010) are both available in the bookstore at Solidarity Salon.

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