History lesson

“The lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our life-time” was one of the most prescient quotes of the 20th century. The remorseful remark was made by UK Foreign Secretary Edward Grey (1862-1933) to John Spender (1862-1942), editor of The Westminster Gazette, while the two old friends looked out of the Foreign Office windows as dusk fell over St James’s Park. It was August 3rd 1914. The dark clouds of war had gathered ominously and relentlessly since the June assassination in Sarajevo of Archduke Franz Ferdinand (1863-1914), heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, by a Bosnian Serb gunman. That assassination, along with the arms race fostered by the shifting alliances and clashing ambitions of the imperialist powers – Britain, Austria-Hungary, Germany, Russia, France, Italy and the Ottoman Empire – would lead to “the war to end all wars”. The following day, August 4th 1914, the Liberal party Prime Minister, Herbert Asquith (1852-1928), advised King George V (1865-1936) to declare war on Germany. Ineffectual, unimaginative and cautious Grey, to this day the longest-serving Foreign Secretary in UK history (1905-1916), was spot on with his gloomy prediction. Over four years later, with 18 million dead, 30 million wounded and almost unquantifiable levels of destruction and suffering, World War One ended, the punch-drunk combatants having pulverised each other to a standstill. As the centenary of the armistice arrives, the annual orgy of ‘remembrance’ (see https://tinyurl.com/yb6y9vo9/ ) reaches sickening new levels of hypocrisy and sepia-tinted rewriting of history – because nothing was ultimately learnt from WW1’s carnage, it was just an appetizer for the fresh horrors to come.

WW1 sowed the seeds of a particularly vicious, hate-filled, militaristic imperialism called fascism. It took hold in Germany, Italy and Spain and led inexorably to WW2, in which at least 60 million died in six years and new techniques of industrial-scale slaughter and mass extermination of civilians were honed and refined. Since WW2 ended there have been 364 different wars around the world and as I write there are 59 ongoing. The cumulative body count is virtually incalculable. The war to end all wars, it turned out, had been the war to start all wars. Edward Grey’s allegorical lamps remain resolutely unlit.

And now fascism is on the march again, emboldened and facilitated by the most powerful man in the world, a billionaire ignoramus, liar, tyrant and bigot waging war on what remains of human decency and civilisation and giving the far right the nod to come creeping out of their closets everywhere. Quite apart from the monstrous superpowers, USA, Russia and China, extreme rightists are in power in Brazil, Italy, Poland, Hungary, Turkey, Slovakia, Malta, Saudi Arabia, Israel, India, the Philippines, Myanmar and Thailand, to name just states that have some economic and military clout, and have put down power-sharing footholds in states like Austria, Denmark, Norway, France, Switzerland, Sweden, Netherlands, Ukraine, Germany and the UK. Yes, the UK, where the already very rightwing Tory government is entirely propped up by and supplicant to its coalition partner, the far-far-right DUP – a party of odious creationists, anti-abortionists, paramilitaries, climate change deniers, racists, homophobes and religious fundamentalists, fanatically opposed to equal rights, justice and enlightenment.

Fascism is not a word to be used lightly. It has a specific meaning and shouldn’t just be bandied about willy-nilly lest its seriousness and dangerousness be diminished. The British Conservative Party, for instance, cannot really be called fascist. Sure, it has always harboured one-off individual fascists and its class-war attacks, autocratic instincts, philistine crudities, anti-democratic gerrymanderings, sleazy corruptions, dirty-money launderings and secret state coercions bear the unmistakeable smack of fascistic tendencies – but the very fact that I’m typing this sentence without some pea-brain thugs knocking at the door shows that the Tories must be categorised currently as just  greedy corporate pigs at the trough. No; fascism is something else entirely. Let the ideology’s inventor Benito Mussolini (1883-1945) supply the definition. For him it had three elements. “Everything in the State”: the government is supreme, the state is all-encompassing and all must conform to the state’s rules. “Nothing outside the State”: the state must grow and expand with the ultimate goal of ruling the world. “Nothing against the State”: no questioning of the state government will be tolerated. When put into practice by Il Duce himself, Herr Hitler (1889-1945) and Generalisimo Franco (1982-1975), fascism displayed its distinctive character: authoritarian and dictatorial; imperialist and jingoist; xenophobic; racial supremacist; militaristic and martial; the exulting of war; the use of violence as an instrument of policy; anti-intellectual, anti-creativity and anti-culture; the scapegoating and demonising of minorities, diversity and difference itself; masculinist, homophiliac and misogynistic; and, most importantly of all to the fascist mind-set, virulently opposed to socialism, communism, Marxism, liberalism, trade unionism and all manifestations of leftism in general.

It is crucial to grasp that last point. After Hitler had seized full power in Germany in 1934, the very first group of people rounded up, murdered, imprisoned or put in concentration camps were not the various minorities, like Jews, homosexuals, gypsies and the disabled, who would be targeted later, but the left-wing opponents of Nazism within Germany. In the words of the famous 1955 poem by the German Lutheran pastor Martin Niemöller (1892-1984):

First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out –
Because I was not a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out –
Because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out –
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me – and there was no-one left to speak for me.

It is always the far-right’s top priority to eliminate the left. We see this now with Brazil’s fascist president-elect, Jair Bolsonaro (slogan: Brazil Above Everything, God Above Everyone), who is making very menacing noises about what he intends to do to the opposition when he takes office in January. South America has been particularly fertile ground for fascism, a litany of military putsches and coups in virtually every country, often with the assistance of US-plotted covert CIA operations, resulting in the overthrow of many democratically-elected leftist or centrist governments followed by the mass murder or disappearance of socialists. We see this now also with the murder of journalists and dissenting voices in far-right regimes around the world – carrying on the fascist tradition of hatred of intellectuals and indeed intellect itself, most vividly enacted in ‘the burning of the books’ in Berlin’s Bebelplatz in 1933 while Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels (1897-1945) urged on the brownshirt thugs, shrieking inflammatory nonsense and virulent anti-Semitism from the State Opera building. The books of leading socialist thinkers Karl Marx (1818-1883) and Karl Kautsky (1854-1938) were the first of the 25,000 volumes thrown on the pyre.

I emphasise fascism’s hatred of the left because, being an open, committed leftwinger myself, I have a personal interest and concrete reasons to be very concerned as fascism gathers momentum alarmingly. Although I don’t flatter myself that I would figure at all on the fascist hit-list, I reckon I would certainly become a victim eventually in a fascist state. Sceptical readers might doubt this assertion and point out that I live in mildly liberal, tolerant Cardiff, the apathetic capital of harmless, depoliticised Wales, hardly fertile territory for pogroms and death camps….but such complacency would be wrong.

Following years of wanderings, I returned to my home town 20 years ago. Up until then, ever since childhood, I was always a friendly, open chap, naturally supportive and encouraging, interested in everyone I met and with an automatic predisposition to assume the best about other people. But these years back in Cardiff have chipped away remorselessly at such idealistic innocence to the point where it has all been eroded, never to return. It is the people I have met, got to know and got close to in Cardiff who have done this damage and disabused me of my hopes for progressive values, for society, for humanity, and for the planet. Yet the fault is all mine because, despite being intelligent, educated and informed, I deluded myself, ignored the stark lessons of over a thousand years of recorded history, and presumed that people are essentially benign. How silly of me! The main lesson of history, the key inescapable fact that is so hard to bear but so essential for us all to face, is that people, as a general rule of thumb, are malfunctioning and malignant.

I was duped and easily swayed by a variety of superficial factors that in the end count for nothing: they were appealing, they were quick-witted, they were personable, they had social skills, they were fun, they laughed at my jokes, they were hedonistic, they liked music, they embraced hip trappings, they were ‘nice’…and so on and so forth. Whatever the minor plus points were, I interpreted them as likability and basic goodness. I couldn’t have been more mistaken. Not only had I disregarded the mountains of overwhelming evidence of human despicableness from the past, I was behaving like it was still the 1970s, when a big spliff, a rebellious outlook and a wacky attitude was sufficient to betoken intrinsic virtue. I hadn’t factored in the terrible damage done to ordinary people by 40 years of brute dog-eat-dog Thatcherite economic barbarity, by the cradle-to-grave brainwashing orchestrated by far-right media moguls that ‘there is no alternative’ and ‘no such thing as society’, by the destruction of education, by the smashing of counterbalancing working-class solidarity and institutions, by the ever-accelerating cultural imperialism of wall-to-wall Americanisation, and by the monetisation and commodification of absolutely everything and everybody. Then, on top of this, to create a perfect storm of fascist-friendly developments, came the internet. Just 20 years ago it barely existed and the rightwing inadequates who had always been around felt alone, marginal and outnumbered. Now they have been connected, organised and empowered by the giant US tech corporations, feeding each other’s prejudices and ignorance in echo-chambers of self-perpetuating ratification and rapidly constructing a toxic propaganda machine manned by drone algorithms, troll armies, fearmongers and truth-busters. The couple of generations below me have thus been turned into the worst of all worlds: self-absorbed without self-awareness; arrogant without aptitude; narcissistic without beauty; cruel yet fragile; dumb yet entitled; lazy yet greedy; hyper-individualised yet unquestioningly obedient and robotic; groomed, scrubbed and de-odorised while their sole home planet is rendered unfit for habitation. When all these factors coalesced to a climax in 2016 with the Brexit vote, that was the last stimulus these hitherto muted millions needed to crawl out from under their stones and start strutting their shitty stuff.

The terrible impact of the far-right, foreign-funded, fraudulent Brexit vote, now belatedly under criminal investigation for breaking electoral law, has snowballed among numerous people of my acquaintance in Cardiff. Whereas previously they wouldn’t say boo to a goose, apart from low-level racist mutterings I mistakenly wrote off as merely tongue-in-cheek, ritualistic, bar-stool tabloidese, now they shamelessly parrot fascistic maxims while shooting me a furtive glance to see if I react. I have learnt not to react – what’s the point? Instead, I have spent the last couple of years emptying my address book, culling my contacts list and summarily dissolving “friendships” – if there is one lesson from history that I didn’t forget, it is to never give a crypto-fascist house room.

I have always fought the rightwing. As a schoolboy I was at Rodney Parade in Newport protesting against the apartheid-era tour by the whites-only South African rugby team. As a young man in London I went on every Anti Nazi League march and one time got beaten up by two skinheads in Shepherd’s Bush for wearing an ANL badge. In my years as a trade union shop steward in the 1980s I resisted the BNP and organised against Thatcherism, getting victimised, phone-tapped and sabotaged for my troubles. In west Wales in the 1990s I battled English colonists, holiday homes and Cymruphobic attitudes and proselytised for the ‘yes’ vote in the ’97 referendum. And all through I’ve been writing and writing, with naïve faith in the power of words to inform and change minds. The ghastly realisation I have had to accept having mixed with people from all walks of life in Cardiff is that I am now the exception to the rightwing norm.

The two pre-requisites for far-right attitudes are stupidity and wickedness, and these exist in abundance in contemporary Cardiff. I never fail to be shocked by the staggering lack of knowledge about any and every subject you care to mention among the hosts of utterly imbecilic, decultured, deskilled, deracinated, infantilised airheads out there – barring, of course, an encyclopedic awareness of anything related to shopping and consumerism, a result of spending every available moment fixated on screens being passively spoon-fed advertising, big business propaganda and conformist, conventional crap. And nor will I ever get used to the breathtaking nastiness I witness and encounter on a daily basis. I have had to teach myself a useful short-cut by removing my rose-tinted spectacles and, against the grain of my personality, judge people on appearances. I have learnt that the face of any adult, at a glance, reveals everything. For instance:

The low brow, mean little eyes and unscrupulous, belligerent smirk tell all; no further information is needed. First impressions are usually accurate.

Quite apart from wars, genocides and murders, the trillions of less drastic instances of human nastiness occurring every minute of every day are so commonplace I hardly need give examples, but there was a particularly good one after bonfire night this week when six men in south London were arrested for burning a scale-model effigy, complete with trapped people, of Grenfell Tower, where 72 people died in a scandalous, preventable fire in 2017. The vile scum had fun mocking the immense suffering with atrociously crude, cruel, racist and anti-poor ‘banter’. Look at the faces of two of the arrested (a father and son):

Nice guys huh? Going by what I see, I’m guessing that these typical Brit specimens are unlikely to spend much time discussing art, literature and pan-European co-operation and would prefer not to hang out with soppy liberal do-gooders. Yep, I believe the evidence of my own eyes.

The millions of good people in the world who still possess empathy, independent minds and a social conscience must, however tough it is, also face the truth about our species and its proneness to be abominable. This, after all, is the only relevant purpose of ‘remembrance’: that the far-right must be recognised – it isn’t difficult – and never appeased. It was appeasement by German social democrats and middle-classes that let Hitler come to power and it was appeasement by British Tories and ruling-classes that let Hitler build his power. Cameron and May have brought the UK to the brink of disaster by appeasing the Tory far-right and UKIP. The consequences of turning a blind eye to fascism are always catastrophic. ‘Never Again’ has been the mantra since 1918, but it makes no difference. It keeps on happening, and this time it’s deadly serious again. My days on the barricades that I thought long gone are only just beginning.


Pictures: panoramio, The Times, newsoneplace.com