From Anti-Fascism to Anti-Imperialism: Three Questions for Giuliana Chamedes

4 May 2021
Giuliana Chamedes, Mellon-Morgridge Professor of European International History at the University of Wisconsin, gave at recent talk entitled “Anti-Fascism as a Differentially Mobilizing Ideology: Anti-Imperialism and the Failed Globalization of the European Left, 1935-1979,” at AUP’s Center for Critical Democracy Studies in its DEMOS 21 convocation. Stephen Sawyer caught up with her afterwards for a short interview.


Stephen Sawyer: You gave a fascinating talk on a history of the European left from the 1930s through the 1980s, and in particular, the history of the left’s relationship to anti-fascism and anti-imperialism. Could you explain what you mean by the difference between a “Popular Front” anti-fascism and an anti-imperial anti-fascism?


Giuliana Chamedes: My research looks at how anti-fascism was a differentially mobilizing ideology for nearly three quarters of the twentieth century.


I focus on two particularly consequential strands within a plural antifascist tradition. Both took shape in the 1930s after the Italian Fascist invasion of Ethiopia. The two traditions were in dialogue but in tension with one another. Rather than eventually converging, these two antifascist traditions split further apart as time passed. They effectively forged a parallel-track antifascist tradition that got calcified in the 1940s and remained in place in the 1970s. By this point, antifascism had become a self-conscious, self-referential origin story for two rival political traditions; it was also a differentially mobilizing ideology, in the sense that it pushed people to take radically divergent forms of action.


The first form of antifascism—Popular Front antifascism—was the child of Western European communist parties, and endorsed by the Communist International in 1934. It saw fascism as an existential threat, pushed by reactionary anti-democratic ‘bourgeois’ interests, and argued for the creation of a broad coalition between far left and centrist political parties so as to bring down fascist governments.


Popular Front antifascism was not born in a vacuum: it was in part a response to a second antifascist mobilizing ideology, which also took shape in the 1930s. This antifascism—anti-imperial antifascism—was created by current and former imperial subjects, many of whom were living in Germany, France, and Great Britain. While these figures agreed that fascism was reactionary, they emphasized that the political project was at its core imperial, and based on racist hierarchies.


For these activists and writers, fascism would only be destroyed when European imperialism came crashing down. Anti-imperial antifascism first appeared in 1935, with the Fascist Italian attack on Ethiopia; returned after 1945, when most European imperial powers failed to give up their colonies and embraced Popular Front antifascism instead; and emerged again in the 1970s, under the umbrella of a globalizing Black Power movement, which gained a great deal of attention in Western Europe.


In your talk at the Center for Critical Democracy Studies at AUP, you pointed toward two historiographical literatures that you are particularly interested in responding to with this project. What are they and how does your project reshape some of their conclusions? Could you explain your broader book project?  


Historiographically, this research constitutes a kind of double plea.


On the one hand, I am pushing back against scholars like Anthony Bogues, Walter Mignolo, and Cedric Robinson, who posit a necessary disjuncture between communism and black internationalism. As I see it, the disjuncture was in no way inevitable; in fact, many of the individuals who I’ll be discussing today remained committed Marxists for much of their lives.


On the other hand I will be suggesting that classic histories of antifascism—as well as standard accounts of 20th century European history—have problematically failed to take stock of an anti-imperial antifascist tradition that went on to play a shaping role on the European continent and on the global stage.


My research also enriches our understanding of the 1970s. Rather than positing the 1970s as a moment of radical rupture (à la Sam Moyn, Daniel Rodgers, etc.), I present the 1970s as a decade when activists and politicians established deep continuities with previous moments and epistemologies. Thus, the antifascist resurgence of the 1970s was not so much the instance of a new set of norms hitting the scene as a continuation of the ongoing battle between Popular Front and anti-imperial antifascism—a battle that had never been resolved.


I am particularly interested in how your focus on anti-fascism and anti-imperialism relates to the anti-totalitarian moment in the 1970s-80s, which played an important role, at least in France and Germany, in forging what came to be known as the “Second Left” or “Third Way.” Do you see a relationship between the anti-fascism you are discussing in this project and anti-totalitarianism, which focused primarily on a critique of bureaucratic, single-party Communism?


The return of Popular Front antifascism in the 1970s was intimately linked to the anti-totalitarian moment and the birth of the “Second Left” or “Third Way.” Socialist and communist party leaders—from Enrico Berlinguer to Willy Brandt, and from Santiago Carillo to François Mitterand—picked up on the new-old language of antifascism as a way to align with the anti-totalitarian moment, criticize the Soviet Union, and suggest that their vision for structural change favored gradual reform over revolution and democracy over single-party rule. Their antifascism was also a critique of anti-imperial antifascism, popularized during the anti-Vietnam protests and by a globalizing Black power movement. It was telling that in explaining why Popular Front antifascism was again necessary—why, that is, left-wing parties should partner with more moderate forces to avert the threat of “fascism”—Western European politicians highlighted the example of Chile as proof of the need to embrace Popular Frontism and democratization over revolutionism or bolder forms of anti-imperialism being articulated, both in Europe and in the decolonizing world, by proponents, for instance, of a New International Economic Order.


Photo Credit: Bart Everson, Black Power Fist (stencil), via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0.


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