In such a context, it is refreshing to find Joseph Fronczak arguing in Everything is Possible: Antifascism and the Left in the Age of Fascism that the causality works the other way around.
Fronczak bases his argument on a thorough reading of the available evidence but also demands we think historically, resisting the temptation to read leftist concepts backwards into a historical moment when they did not exist.
While it is tempting to date the rise of fascism to the early postwar years, even as late as Mussolini’s speech on Milano’s Piazza San Sepolcro in March 1919, Fronczak points out that the roots of the movement lie in the Italians calling for intervention in the First World War in 1915.
This is when the terminology of “fasci” and “fascismo” arose, rather than in the postwar (and post-Bolshevist) moment in which Mussolini called the party into existence.
Fronczak sidesteps the vexed question of what exactly fascism is. His project is to trace the historical development of the ideas, figures, and symbols that would come to make up fascism in its halcyon days in the late 1930s.
One of the qualities of fascism was to generate counter-movements. Thus, antifascism was born from the rise of the phenomenon it opposed. However, its rise did not indicate the existence of a coherent body of thought or institutions.
Up to this point, the left was usually a designation for a parliamentary faction. There was no left, per se. It would only come to exist in a violent struggle that brought together radical groups (communists, socialists, syndicalists, anarchists, etc.) whose only shared belief was opposition to fascism.
The formation of the left was a predominantly European phenomenon. Although Fronczak notes that elements of antifascist activism arose elsewhere, it was in Europe that it took its most tangible forms.
In the United States, the emergence of the left was different, and this had everything to do with how fascism manifested in the country.
There has recently been a spate of books about the rise of pro-Nazi movements in the US in the 1930s and running, somewhat surprisingly, even to the end of the Second World War.
The most prominent contribution to this literature has been the recently published book by the anti-Tucker Carlson, MSNBC journalist Rachel Maddow’s Prequel: An American Fight Against Fascism.
Maddow has a story to tell, although many of the most critical points were also covered in her Ultra podcast last year.
Prequel reinforces a powerful narrative in which isolated figures in the United States took up the cudgels against a range of movements seeking to translate the success of Hitlerism in an American context.
Unlike Fronczak, Maddow’s narrative is centred on the United States. And it is primarily about the knock-on effects of National Socialism.
The early elements of Fronczak’s book focus, not surprisingly, on Italy since that is where fascism’s origin story begins.
Likewise, the antifascism that arose in opposition to it centred in Italy but also in struggles in the loci of the Italian diaspora, such as Greenwich Village in New York City.
There, groups of fascists faced off against self-designated antifascists in the East Village in ways that replicated Italy.
Maddow’s story starts with Nazism (and fascism) as a fait accompli, tracking their spread into American political culture.
One of the most important differences is the level of support they received from Europe.
While Mussolini and his cohorts were happy to validate American fascists, they did not provide a significant degree of assistance to them.
The German case was considerably different.
The early 1930s saw the formation of several pro-Nazi groups, some affiliated with the isolationist America First Committee, others with the radical right-wing priest Charles Coughlin, and still others existing in their milieux.
What would become clear is that Nazi officials in Germany were willing to make available cash and other resources to facilitate the work of these groups and others better placed as well.
These included members of Congress, more than two dozen of whom were, according to an investigation in the late 1930s, actively involved in pro-Nazi activities.
The most scandalous of these included using “franked” envelopes, made available postage-free to legislators to communicate with their constituents, to mail out translations of Hitler’s speeches and other propaganda materials to millions of unsuspecting Americans.
The opposition to these movements was scattered, especially during the 1930s and early 1940s, before America entered the war.
In Los Angeles, where American Nazi sympathisers plotted to hang prominent Jews and take over the government, Leon Lewis, an attorney and army veteran, ran private spy networks that effectively infiltrated their organisations.
But infiltration was one thing, and getting law enforcement to act was another.
Maddow notes that when Lewis tried to take his information to both the LAPD and the Sheriff’s office, he was brusquely dismissed by officials who were, in fact, largely sympathetic to Hitler.
The same thing happened in a larger venue when successive federal investigations of active Nazi agitations on the part of sitting US congressmen (such as Burton K. Wheeler of Montana and William “Wild Bill” Langer of North Dakota) were derailed.
Although both would lose their seats due to animus toward Nazism, their downfall would wait until after the end of the war.
Maddow, a Rhodes Scholar, has an axe to grind. What it is can easily be discerned from the title of her book. The Nazi-sympathising congressmen were a prequel to Donald Trump.
What, the MSNBC pundit wishes to ask, is to be done in the face of a fascist movement which overwhelms the American legal system?
Of course, the same could be asked in the European context, where fascist parties outgrew violent agitation and ended up taking power in several states.
In the two cases under consideration, antifascism took on very different contours.
In Europe, what developed was an organised left, still multifaceted and seldom fully unified, but at least with a clear idea of who the enemy was.
In the United States, by contrast, no such left emerged. The question of why socialism and other progressive currents never developed is complex, relating to the history of race in America.
In addition, although the US participated in the later stages of World War I, it never faced the high casualties or the long-term traumatic effects visited on its European combatants.
The disorders that WWI visited upon Europe contributed significantly to the upheaval of the interwar period. These contributed to political vacuums and created spaces where fascism could flow.
The larger question raised by Maddow and Fronczak is what can be done to build antifascist solidarity in the present moment?
Neither has a terribly satisfying answer.
Joseph Fronczak limits his discussion to the pre-WWII period. This was a time in which fascism reigned triumphant. If the left arose as a coherent entity, it did little to stem the fascist tide.
Rachel Maddow engages with matters a little further forward historically, but she too tells a story of fascism’s ability to overwhelm the capacities of the liberal state to neutralise it.
If we are limited to the work of private citizens and campaigns in the press, how can we fight an enemy for whom violence is politics?
The radical right is rising again. Nostrums about the badness of the fascist threat no longer carry the same weight that they once did.
Perhaps the answer lies in the left that formed out of the opposition to fascism’s original rise.
The antifascist struggle before WWII provides essential lessons for anyone willing to learn from it.
Photograph courtesy of Joel Schalit. All rights reserved.