If Left and Right agree, it doesn't mean they are fascists
In the 20th century, the ultimate expression of red-brown politics — that is to say, the meeting point of far-Left and far-Right ideas — was the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of 1939, in which Stalin’s USSR and Hitler’s Germany carved up Eastern Europe between them. It came to an end when Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, but the Pact stands as proof that, when it suits them, the political extremes are capable of uniting against the centre.
Does this warning from history have any relevance to us today? In an essay published last week, the British writer and journalist Paul Mason argues that the contemporary Left is under threat from a form of red-brown politics, in which “the conspiracy theories and obsessions of the far left and far right are becoming merged” .
He identifies this strain of thinking with antisemitism of the kind that shamed the Labour Party; expressions of solidarity with Vladimir Putin’s Russia against Nato; hostility to “wokeness”; support for Brexit; and belief in various conspiracy theories. It’s especially when these various stances overlap that Mason diagnoses a nasty case of the red-browns.
But just how extensive is this threat? Are we talking about an irrelevant subset of cranks on the extreme Left? Or is it characteristic of what Mason calls a “broad, anti-elite conspiracy culture”?
He appears to lean towards the latter in a tweet from the weekend concerning Robert F. Kennedy Jr, who recently made widely reported and highly controversial remarks about Ashkenazi Jews and the Covid virus. Commenting sarcastically, Mason said: “No, Paul, your warnings about an emerging Anglosphere red-brown ideology are totally OTT”.
Of course, Kennedy is not a red: he’s a US Democrat and a scion of the party’s most famous family to boot. Nor do his often eccentric ideas make him a brown, given that he has angrily denied recent charges of antisemitism. What we can say is that RFK Jr is symptomatic of a new politics, in which distinctions between the anti-establishment Left and the anti-establishment Right are becoming increasingly blurred.
The problem with sticking a “red-brown” label on this phenomenon is that it risks tarring all critics of the liberal elite with the same brush. Surely, those in charge of the West’s political, cultural and economic decline ought to be criticised. Further, policies like the mass roll-out of Covid vaccines and western support for Ukraine should be scrutinised — and I say that as a pro-vaxxer and supporter of Nato expansion.
What’s more, it is entirely reasonable for Left-wingers to oppose the impact of uncontrolled immigration on wage levels, or the European Union as an embodiment of neoliberal principles like the free movement of capital, or wokeness as a threat to working-class solidarity. They don’t need to borrow a single idea from the Right to reach these conclusions: they just need to understand democratic socialism as, say, Clement Attlee would have done.
Of course, anti-establishment politicians — whether of the Left or Right — should be subject to criticism too. Yet the red-brown label, harking back as it does to the ideologies of the 20th century, is still unhelpful.
For the most part, we’re not talking about Stalinists or fascists here, but instead something very different. Totalitarianism is the subjugation of the individual to the collective, but the appeal of 21st century populism and conspiracy theories is rooted in the very opposite: individualism stripped of all bounds — including the constraints of reality. That’s not a good thing either, but it can’t be opposed unless it’s correctly identified.