Sleepwalking Toward Global War: Bernadette Devlin McAliskey on the Rise of Fascism Today

Bernadette Devlin McAliskey in the 1960s. (Evening Standard / Getty Images)
Bernadette Devlin McAliskey in the 1960s. (Evening Standard / Getty Images)

On a recent night in Dublin, Ireland, veteran civil-rights campaigner Bernadette Devlin McAliskey addressed a conference commemorating the 80th anniversary of the bombing of Gernika – the small Basque town also known by its Spanish name, Guernica – during the Spanish Civil War.

She spoke of the current rise of fascism in the context of the indiscriminate bombing of the town in April 1937 by the German Condor Legion in support of Spanish fascists, a horror of war memorialized in Picasso’s famous Guernica painting.

“Our simplistic historic understanding of fascism needs to be challenged,” warns McAliskey, “fascism is not German, it’s not the Nazism of the Second World War … it starts in the heads of individuals with the idea that what keeps you disadvantaged is that some lesser breed has taken what belongs to you.”

Bernadette Devlin McAliskey has lived a long and arduous political life. On the back of her work as a civil rights campaigner, she was elected MP for Mid-Ulster at age 21, serving in Westminister from 1969 to 1974. Her active participation in the Free Derry uprising led to a conviction for ‘inciting riot’, during which time she wrote The Price of My Soul. Presented with a golden key to the city by the New York Mayor in 1970, she famously handed it over the Black Panthers. She was witness to the 1972 Bloody Sunday Massacre of civilians by British armed forces, and helped form the revolutionary Irish Republican Socialist Party soon after. She and her husband were shot in an assassination attempt by pro-British paramilitaries in 1979. She remained a radical voice throughout the Northern Ireland Peace Process during the 1990s and 2000s, pushing for a more progressive outcome.

Today, at 70, she is active in her community working with prisoners and migrants.

Unpicking and Understanding the Global Rise of Fascism Today

Presentation given by Bernadette McAliskey at the Gernika 80 Commemoration, Dublin, April 2017. (Recording, transcription, and edits by Ramor Ryan.)

And I think when you sit and you listen to the stark facts, the historical realities of what happened in Gernika you become aware of the importance of the small things that we all have to do, to ensure that history is never forgotten. The real history of real people, which is reviewed and revised and distorted and made to fit new dispensations and new agendas, routinely. So in almost in every generation people have to relearn how to survive the battlefield, how to build the struggle, relearn the lessons that if we had the peoples’ history, it would be there to pass on.

As we sit here and learn what happened in that small town [of Gernika]– because by today’s standards Gernika is a small market town – it’s actually not much bigger than the modern town of Coalisland. And interestingly enough, also a small town in Northern Ireland whose population has dramatically increased because of refugees and new migrants, people fleeing poverty, fleeing destruction and war.

But if we ask ourselves – apart from the strategic importance, apart from what the key warmongers were doing, apart from the key messages that were being sent out – what allowed the people, the guy in the plane, to keep doing that, to keep coming and keeping killing women and children? Because they knew exactly what they were doing, so what allowed them to do it because whatever it was, it is exactly the same aberration of human empathy and human dignity and humanity that allows people to do it today.

It doesn’t matter which side of the argument you hold on who is responsible for what is happening in Syria, just think Gernika and multiply and multiply and multiply and ask – have we learned nothing in the time between? Did we learn nothing from the Second World War? Did we learn nothing in the tens and the hundreds of wars that have been fought since?

So what is it that allows a human being to engage in the mass destruction of their fellow and sister human beings? And there is only one thing – you can put in a lot of ingredients – but there is only one thing that allows it to happen. At the point in which it is happening the perpetrator does not believe that their victims are entitled to the status of human beings. You couldn’t do it otherwise, you couldn’t do it and go home and not go insane, you couldn’t do it and go home and live with the demons of it for the rest of your life. Unless you can persuade yourself – and it is remarkable how little persuasion it seems to take – that once you can identify any group of people as less than human, you can exterminate them.

It is not that complicated. I think somewhere in Shakespeare it is said ‘those whom God wishes to destroy he first drives mad.’ But those who the powerful would destroy, they first dehumanize.  And so the lesson for us I think today is to try and look at the world that we live in. What is happening today; what is happening globally, what is happening nationally and what is happening locally? And what are the stark frightening parallels of today? Do we see that if we knew the truth of the ‘30s, if we cut through the historical large lies, fake news?

Donald Trump talks about fake news, and it is interesting how this man has colonized – and I am going to say this very carefully – he has colonized the cryptic, semi inarticulate language of what the Black Panther movement in the sixties called the American lumpen proletariat.   So he talks like a redneck, he says things like ‘big lie,’ things that you see on the internet, I love it, you know people who write on Facebook – The World is Flat.  Fact! And they think if they write that, that is what makes it true. Full stop, fact.

And Trump talks like that and we all laugh at him. But in talking like that, he talks the language of ill-informed people who are hurting because their lives are shit, but who are led to believe daily that something less than human — some other species less than human — is the cause of it: the foreigner, the migrant, the refugee, the alien, the Muslim.

I am old now, but there was a time when we were young, we called everyone over the age of 30 a fascist. That was the 1960s. What defined a fascist? Age. Over the age of 30 in the 60s? Tough. Fascist. Teachers? Fascists. Parents? Fascists. Anybody who said you needed a license to get a motorcycle or scooter? Fascist.

And then wiser people like Betty Sinclair of the Communist Party would say to us – don’t call people fascists when they are not. Because when you come to confront fascism, you need to know what it looks like, and it’s very, very important that you know today what fascism looks like. What makes the individual fascist? What makes the fascist movement? What makes the global authoritarian fascist state? What are the ingredients in that? And I think we need to know them, because I think this is what we are facing, in this time and this generation – which is mostly yours. I feel a bit like Betty Sinclair actually, because we used to say – what is that old woman talking about?!

You are facing globally the rise of fascism. So the simplistic understandings that you have historically of what is fascism is need to be challenged and corrected.

Fascism is not German. Fascism is not the Nazism of the Second World War. It predates that. Fascism is not a phenomenon of that period of Western Europe. Fascism, like Capitalism, from which it grows, like racism, like xenophobia from which it grows, is a global phenomenon. It is an approach to life, and it starts in the head of individuals, and it is promoted there. People’s perception and way of understanding the world is encouraged to consider that what keeps you disadvantaged, which means you don’t have enough, is that lesser breed. That lesser breed has taken what belongs to you. It might be your land, might be your job, but ultimately it is the air that you breathe.

There is a great Alice Walker poem, First They Said, about what was ‘wrong’ with us. First they said we were stupid, and then they realised we weren’t. And at the end of this poem, the people realize that what is annoying the fascist, is our very existence. Those who will not conform, those who will not believe, those who will not accept, those who will not obey, it is our very existence on the face of this earth that threatens the social order. That threatens the well-being of society, that threatens the economic order. So there would be enough money in the National Health Service if certain kinds of people didn’t exist. If only we could reduce the population to the deserving, to those entitled, there would be enough to go around.

And that is the core issue. So who are the deserving? Historically the deserving are those people who somewhere back in the distant past, plundered and stole and raped and acquired by murder and destruction land and property and power. And then having taken it in violence, and having taken it in war and plunder, fashioned laws to prevent anybody taking it back.

And so let’s look at the position of the bankers. The bankers stole your money, but it was not called theft. It was not called theft because there are bits of paper and laws that prevent you calling it theft, but simple logic will tell you, you don’t have the money you are entitled to and you know where it went.  And you didn’t give it to them, so logically they took it without your consent. And the word for that is theft. And the only thing that prevents it from being theft is that those in power create processes and paperwork and structures which call it something else.

What is Democracy?

So by what other names are we calling the rise of fascism? Democracy is one of them. I am watching poor bleeding heart liberals in America and is my heart is breaking for them…? No.

I learned long ago a simple litmus test for liberals. Throw them into the deep end, they will learn to swim or they will give us no problems. Most are smart people, they will learn to swim.

But hanging around the edges waiting for the liberals to catch on is not something that I was ever any good at.

So I am watching liberals in America as they watch this man threaten world war, because he can. This man pokes sticks at North Korea because he can, and liberals say, “Well he was democratically elected.” So was Hitler democratically elected!

So maybe one of the things we have to do in trying to unpick and understand what fascism is today, we have to begin to understand what democracy is. Maybe we have to have a 21st century conversation on what democracy is. Has democracy been reduced to an electoral process that seduces everybody and delivers very little? This is especially true in a globalized world, where the power and authority of the world – in its economic machinations – are not held within these nation state institutions.

So if democracy is simply about the politics of the creation of governments and institutions, if we are still in the Age of Enlightenment which was the 18th century, do we need a 21st century definition of what democracy is? Over and beyond the machinations of one individual, one vote – be that at 21 years old, or 18 or 16.

Is it democracy that we can debate what happens in the Dáil [Irish Congress] or what doesn’t happen in the Executive – because we don’t have one in the north [of Ireland] at the minute.  What happens in Westminster – which doesn’t function at the moment either? Now, if these things are at the core of democracy, how does the world keep going on when they collapse? We are having a ball in the north. I don’t see anybody who can’t get out of bed, do their work, rear their children, pay their debts, because there is no government. The only thing that is not working is the government. The rest of the world is going on. People are still eating out of food banks, still getting the minimum wage, factories are still making money, chickens are still eating and getting killed, and put in the production line and packaged up so the people can poison themselves, or whatever. All those things are going on

So if we want to understand fascism today, we need to understand democracy. And the reason I ask that is because I was watching the TV news after the shooting of the gendarme in Paris [April 20, 2017], and there was a discussion with young French people. One of the young men was saying about the changes that would need to happen and he was supporting Marine Le Pen, and in the midst of what he was saying he said, “You know, because we have to protect democracy, and the unit of democracy is the nation state.”

I just went ‘wow.’ The unit of democracy is the nation state. Now the last time that that was effectively publically debated – right at the start of the French Revolution – was between the Republicans led by Thomas Payne and essentially the nation-state or nationalists, not individual country nationalists, but nationalists as a concept. And the Republicans, of whom I am one, argument was … and I will ask it here – how many people think that the unit of democracy might be the nation–state?

[No hands]

Thank God for small mercies.

The Republicans argue that the first basic unit of democracy is the individual. That is why it is open to becoming a very individualist way of thinking if it is not placed all the time within the context of socialism. So if you’re a Republican that is not a socialist republican, you will either have to become a socialist republican as you grow up and learn more, or you will end up being a nationalist, Sinn Fein being a case in point.

But when you start to think that the nation-state was that – which is the argument that the nationalists put up – when people delegate their power, when people vote, the nation then becomes the collective voice of the people, and the people cannot disagree with the nation, the nation then becomes almost like one big human being. And the more diverse our nation-states have become, in the modern world, the more difficult it is for that notion to hold sway. Because before we had nation-states, there were people, people who shared culture, people who shared a language, people who shared a way of life, be that nomadic or whatever; nations were kinships and people, and states were territories that were owned by kings and aristocrats, and then the bringing of these two together, first of all under monarchies, was the creation of nation-states. And with the carving up of pieces of ground that belonged to certain monarchs, they created that bond of ‘us’ versus ‘them’ and the territory that divided us from the next state.

A History of Violence

And because our own history of the development of capitalism in Europe and imperialism in Europe which sent the British and Spanish and the Portuguese and the Dutch and the Germans to rape and plunder the rest of the world, it was necessary if you were going to do that, with your weapon in one hand and your bible in the other, to persuade both the people at home and the people abroad that there was something fundamentally superior about being white, about being European, and about being Christian.  And very few of us in this room have any real conscious awareness of how deeply embedded that is in all our psyches. So that if we are not consciously learning and challenging it, we slip into that way of thinking.

So we have a problem in that even though Trump, pitched against North Korea, is as they used to say in the old days, our fool. He is white. He is Christian. He is male and he is on the side of Europe.

We look at the same thing when we look at Syria. How many of us actually know what is happening in Syria? I don’t. I tried to understand it and I don’t fully understand it. Part of the reason I don’t fully understand it and part of the reason I don’t fully understand ISIS is that there is nothing in my history, education, or learning that enables me to understand that context, historically, like I understand my own. I know nothing compared to the comparative knowledge I have of the history of Western Europe. I know nothing of the history of the Middle East, I know nothing of the development of Islam as a religion.

So here we are with our first problem: we are intellectually, historically, and politically ill-equipped to understand what is happening in the rest of the world at this point. And yet it doesn’t stop us all doing things about it.

At this point in history, much like in the thirties, there is one single group of people – it doesn’t matter where you are, America, Europe, Paris, Dublin – that is the most dangerous group of people in the world. Who are the most dangerous people on the face of the world today?

[“White people!” – audience]

Well, exactly. But that is not what people think. People walk in terror of Muslims. Or to make it sound less offensive, in the north [of Ireland], for some reason people say ‘moslems’, then they think their racism is not so vulgar.

But the global enemy today is the Muslim, in much the same way as almost every ill, the poverty of the ‘30s, the inequality of the east and west, almost everything in the 30s could be blamed on the Jews, and that is now the Muslims. And we buy it! We don’t challenge it. We get on with the economic realities but we don’t challenge that core issue. The issue that will define us, that will define this generation in the future, will be the bodies drowning in the Mediterranean, will be the lives destroyed in Syria, will be the refugees dying in camps when we had room for them all.  We had room for them all. The big lie is that there isn’t room, it is a lie, same as the Gernika lie, and we are sleepwalking to a third world war.

We are sleep walking towards an international war. And you know why we are doing that? Capitalism needs a war. The solution to the economic problems of the western world is giving people jobs, making more weapons. So if we are going to have people making more weapons, we need to get rid of the weapons we have got. What will we do with them? Drop them on people who are less than human. Drop them on North Korea. What will they do? Hit back and miss, they hope. Bomb Syria, destroy Afghanistan, destroy the infrastructure of the entire Middle East and never ever mention Africa. A whole world from South Africa to Tunisia, a whole world torn apart, with a legacy of imperialism, and capitalism and rape and plunder and racism turned in on itself. Continually still plundered, and full of fascists. Full of them. Governments killing their own people, little puppet states. We don’t even worry about that, and why not? Because maybe they are not real people, maybe Africa is not a real big place like Europe. Maybe the authoritarians and the dictators in African countries are only killing Africans.  Or maybe something very deep down in the white European psyche says [whispers] “Africans aren’t real people.” It will only be war if it comes to us.

So when we are doing these [Spanish Civil War commemorations] – this is important – never underestimate the importance of the people who remind you of what happened in the past. Because if you forget, you will be made to remember, when in your lifetime, if not mine, it will happen again.