Time-travelling Nazis would find plenty to smile about in the 21st century, the English journalist warns. Far-right ideas are circulating globally – and he has a plan to halt their progress
At the start of his new book, How to Stop Fascism, the writer and broadcaster Paul Mason imagines the Nazis inventing a time machine at the end of World War II.
In this fantasy, a crack SS team travels 75 years into the future to 2020. How do they react to what they can see all around them in our modern era?
They might be appalled at the “ultra-liberalism” of Western society and the fact that black American music is so popular.
But, according to Mason, they would also have plenty of reasons to cheer. They could see the far-right Vox party in Spain winning three million votes as they rail against migrants and feminists.
They could see Hindu mobs in Delhi beating left-wing students with iron bars. They would find Chinese Muslims incarcerated in prisons that look for all the world like their own concentration camps.
Mason speculates that their smiles would broaden as they realise that a German army unit has been disbanded after being infiltrated by neo-Nazis. Then of course there are the racist networks and conspiracy theorists following Donald Trump.
Listening to Mason talking over the phone from London, it is clear that he has no time for faffing about for precise definitions of fascism.He does not bother with mealy-mouthed concerns that mentioning the F-word amounts to a political equivalent of crying wolf.
Mason believes the new forms of fascism must be confronted head on and not denied. To recognise a 21st-century fascist, he says, we do not have to see a ranting Mussolini-type dictator in jackboots.
Nazi time travellers arriving in our own time, he says, would find that their 20th-century ideas — racial purity, male supremacy and leader worship — are circulating globally online.
The former BBC Newsnight economics editor takes no comfort from the defeat of Trump, who became the standard bearer for the far right in America.
“You have to remember that 10 million more people voted for Trump in November’s election than in 2016,” he says.
Mason, who has seen the flames of far-right extremism fanned in the Brexit era, says the insurrection of January 6, when activists stormed the Capitol building in Washington, showed the extent of the threat to democracy.
“Trump has turned the Republican party into a willing host of insurrectionary fascists. The peak of the threat was from December 18 to January 6 when Trump decided to go for it,” he says.
“If there was a global radar searching for fascism, widespread racism and the hollowing out of democracy, that radar would still be beeping fairly strongly.”
Mason believes the next big test will be next year’s French presidential election, in which Marine Le Pen of National Rally (formerly the National Front) will attempt to defeat Emmanuel Macron.
“Marine Le Pen’s party is not technically fascist — it has a fascist origin. It’s a right-wing populist party and drags discourse in France towards Islamophobia,” Mason says.
“If someone with her politics — which are overtly racist, overtly xenophobic and overtly anti-European — was to win, or come close to winning, the EU would face as big a crisis as American democracy has faced in the past four years.”
Mason first got a glimpse of what fascism meant as a child when watching TV showing the liberation of Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, and there were pictures of a bulldozer pushing a pile of emaciated bodies.
His mother, a school principal with a Jewish refugee background, leapt to her feet to turn the television off and shouted: “We’re not watching that.” Born in 1935, she had spent part of her childhood knowing that if the Nazis invaded Britain she would be killed.
Mason grew up in the coal-mining community of Leigh in Lancashire. His father was a lorry driver from a mining family.
Paul started out as a music teacher before his successful career as a current affairs broadcaster. He has been identified with the radical left of Labour, but is ambivalent about Jeremy Corbyn, the party’s leader from 2015 to 2020.
He believes a much broader alliance of left-wing and centrist political activists is needed to combat the threat of fascism.
Growing up in Lancashire, a traditional Labour heartland, Mason remembers playing in disused wartime air-raid shelters scrawled with anti-Nazi graffiti.
Returning to his home base, while campaigning for Labour in the last general election, he was disturbed to hear men of his own age openly fantasise about the ethnic cleansing of Romanian migrants.
Former mining communities feel abandoned, according to Mason, and as a result it is hard to make a case that the EU brought many benefits in poor parts of the north of England.
Mason says toolmakers he worked with in a factory on Merseyside back in the 1980s grumbled about everything at the time, but rarely expressed hatred.
As he puts it in his book: “Today, expressions of hatred are everywhere. Over the past 10 years, a political culture has emerged in some working-class communities, defined by xenophobia, white supremacy, anti-feminism and Islamophobia.”
From the 1970s to the 1990s, Mason was an anti-fascist activist, disrupting events organised by small groups such as the National Front and the British National Party.
By the turn of the millennium, it was hoped that the far right was finished as a political force. Mason describes the small far-right movements of that era as “tribute bands” to movements of the past.
Fascists may not be in power, and many far-right movements are still small, but their ideas are amplified in online networks, and the lines between far-right ideology and right-wing populism in conservative parties has become blurred, he says.
Mason’s great fear is that democracy in a country like the US could fail.
“If American democracy fails, then the world order shatters. What frustrates me is the inability of a lot of my peers in journalism and political analysis to think as big as that, to think the expansively horrible thought that the American constitution is not defending the rule of law.” So what has to be done to defend democracy?
Mason believes in the idea, embraced in France and Spain in the 1930s, of a popular front between those on the left and progressive liberals.
“What is needed is a cross-party alliance of the left and centre. That was what happened in France and Spain, and it succeeded in delaying fascism,” he says.
Mason says in France, the Popular Front not only attracted political activists but became a mass cultural movement of artists, film-makers and intellectuals.
He also advocates anti-fascist laws targeting the far right, modelled on those in postwar Germany. He says these laws are now required, since one in five terrorist convicts in Britain is now from the far right.
“We need to ban the mass libel of ethnic groups, fascist regalia and military parades. In Germany, parts of the Alternative für Deutschland far-right group have been put under intense surveillance,” he says.
“The European democratic tradition does not like to do these things, but if you believe a second fascist era is possible — and that is the main thesis of the book — then you have to take measures that mitigate the danger.”
‘How to Stop Fascism’ by Paul Mason is published by Allen Lane