Fascism: What It Is (And Isn’t) And How To (And Not To) Fight It

Fascism: What It Is (And Isn’t) And How To (And Not To) Fight It

Donald Trump was elected President of the US in November 2016 on a nationalist-populist “alt-right” program of renewed trade protection of US “producers” against “foreign competitors,” repression against undocumented immigrants, and blatant appeals to racism. His victory has encouraged a new wave of racist violence and the reemergence of actual fascist gangs in the streets of various US cities. The left is struggling to analyze the roots of this new right and develop a strategy to fight it. Unfortunately much of the discussion confuses right-wing populism and fascism. This confusion is not surprising given the similar ideology and social base of right-wing populism and fascism.

Both economic nationalists and fascists claim to defend the “little man” against threats from “above and below.” Nationalist-populists like Trump and his former strategist Steve Bannon of Breitbart News, and the mélange of white nationalists groupings like the Klan, neo-Nazis, Sons of Odin, the Proud Boys and other street thugs[1] share a hostility to both “globalist corporations” and “undeserving” racial minorities, immigrants, women and unions. Both the “transnationals” and racialized minorities and organized workers are squeezing “hard working”- i.e. white – Americans. Anti-Semitism is deployed against the “cosmopolitan elites” who run corporations who have no ‘loyalty’ to the American homeland, while anti-Black racism, Islamophobia and anti-immigrant xenophobia target the non-white working class and poor.

The social base of both right-wing populism and fascism are also similar. The vast majority of Trump voters, and the cadre and sympathizers of the revived fascist groups are drawn from the white, suburban and exurban’ middle classes — small business people, low level managers and professionals.[2] They have, like most of the US (and the world’s) population, experienced falling living standards and growing economic precarity since the onset of the global capitalist crisis in 2008. Lacking the capacity for collective organization, like unions to defend themselves against capital,  segments of the middle classes are drawn to claims that they are threatened from both above by transnational corporations and from below by organized workers, racial minorities and immigrants. Both right-wing populism and fascism also draw support from older, white working and unemployed people. Like their fellow non-white and immigrant workers, they have seen their living standards decline in the face of the neoliberal capitalist offensive of the past forty years — and their situation became even more insecure since the recession. The weakness of class against class organizations — in particular unions — that can offer a collective defense against capital leads segments of the working class to attempt to defend themselves at the expense of other workers — women, people of colour, immigrants, queer folks and Muslims.

Despite these similarities, right-wing populism and fascism differ fundamentally in the way they organize and build power. Right-wing populism across the advanced capitalist world relies primarily on electoral politics. Right-wing populists — whether Trump supporters in the US, UKIP in Britain, or the National Front in France — do not seek to overthrow capitalist democracy, but to take power by winning elections. Fascism is not a simple electoral political movement. Instead it is a social movement that recruits and consolidates its membership and seeks to win power through violence and terror. Fascist groups are street fighters who seek to physically intimidate their enemies — the left, union activists, people of colour, immigrants, Muslims and queer folks. The ultimate goal of fascist movements is not to win elections and use the institutions of parliamentary representation to implement their program, but to destroy all the institutions of capitalist democracy — from elected legislatures to the most class collaborationist trade union — and establish a single-party dictatorship. Neither Mussolini’s Fascist party in Italy nor Hitler’s Nazis in Germany ever won an election — they were allowed to come to power because of their ability to terrorize working and oppressed people.[3]

The conditions for a fascist seizure of power do not yet exist in the US or any other capitalist society today. Handing power over to fascists has risks for capitalists. On the one hand, fascists coming to power could provoke militant counter-mobilizations by the working class and oppressed. On the other, capitalists correctly view fascists as “unreliable” elements, whose agenda may not completely coincide with those of capitalists. Fascism has only come to power in periods of extreme emergency for capitalists, usually when working people and the left have threatened to take power, but have failed to do so. Capital, unfortunately, has not faced any sustained challenge from the working class since the early 1970s. Capitalists in the US and around the world are blocking right-wing populist regimes from implementing policies inimical to capital, and have no need to countenance fascism in this period.

While a fascist seizure of power is not an immediate threat; the social and political conditions for the renewed growth and confidence of fascist movements do exist. Economic stagnation and falling living conditions among broad sections of the middle and working classes, combined with the twin crises of traditional capitalist politics and of the organizations of working and oppressed people provide a fertile environment for the growth of fascist gangs. The electoral success of right-wing populists like Trump provides a “wind at their back” and encourages them to take to the streets for the first time in almost twenty years. Put simply, the growth of fascism is a real danger for the left, working people and the oppressed. We need to stop them now, when they are still a marginal and despised movement.

Our strategy for fighting right-wing populist ideologues and politicians — the Trumps, Bannons and their ilk — needs to be different from our strategy for confronting fascist gangs. As Sam Farber put it in a recent essay, we need to always distinguish between right-wing “persuaders” and fascist intimidators.[4]Trump, Bannon and pseudo-intellectuals in their milieu like Charles Murray, need to be picketed, challenged and debated. However, the left cannot abandon our commitment to free speech, even for those whose opinions are racist, sexist, homophobic and nativist. As long as these ideologues engage in speech — in an attempt to persuade people with their unscientific, false and repulsive ideas — we should not attempt to stop them from speaking. Clearly, the rise of the “alt-Right,” which includes both right-wing ideologues and fascists thugs, makes it a challenge to operationalize this distinction. However, our ability to effectively argue to “no-platform” fascists depends upon this distinction.         By contrast, fascists do not engage in speech or persuasion, but in terror and intimidation. When fascists marched through the East End of London in1936, they were not trying to persuade the Jewish workers there to join the British Union of Fascists — they marched to terrorize the population. When the Nazis, Proud Boys and other street gangs marched in Charlottesville this past August, they were not trying to convince African Americans and others of the legitimacy of “southern heritage,” but to terrorize anyone who questioned white supremacy. Fascism is not a political movement that wins adherents through appeals to ideas and fears. Instead fascist organizations build themselves through collective violence against organized workers, the left, people of colour, queer folks, Muslisms and immigrants. The absence of effective counter-mobilizations with the goal of shutting down fascist action only emboldens them. Contrary to much of the liberal left in the US and globally, ignoring fascists will not make them “go away” — it will only encourage them. Put simply, we need to “no platform” fascists.

Some on the liberal and even socialist left agree that fascists should not be allowed to organize and mobilize. However, these folks want the capitalist state, usually local governments, and university administrators to legally ban actions by fascists. This is a strategy that is bound to fail. On the one hand, the police cannot be relied upon to disperse fascists. There is considerable evidence of the interpenetration between the fascist nuclei and rank-and-file police officers in the US and in other capitalist societies. On the other, the left does not want the state and educational bureaucrats to have the power to restrict speech, assembly and the like. We will be the most likely targets of bans on “disruptive” or “controversial” organizations and speakers, not the fascists.

It is the task of the left to build mass mobilizations that will outnumber and, when possible, physically confront the fascists. In the past months, there has been considerable debate about the strategy and tactics of the loose networks of militants known as “antifa” — anti-fascist action.[5] There are legitimate criticisms of these comrades. Often they initiate physical confrontations without the support of the organizers of larger anti-fascist mobilizations, or take on the street thugs when we do not outnumber the fascists. However, their basic argument — that fascism needs to be confronted and smashed, physically if necessary is absolutely correct. While we must mobilize as many people as possible so that we outnumber the fascists, mass mobilizations alone will ultimately be insufficient. We must prepare ourselves for the inevitable physical confrontations that have historically been crucial to defeating fascism. Our model needs to be the successful anti-fascist actions like Cable Street in London in 1936, Madison Square Garden in New York in 1938, the Mutualite arena in Paris in 1973, and Lewisham in London in 1977 — where the revolutionary left mobilized mass actions that included broader layers of people opposed to fascism, and that both outnumbered and physically dispersed the fascists.

Finally, anti-fascist mobilizations are not a “diversion” from “real organizing.” Some on the US left have argued that anti-fascist actions divert energy from reorganizing unions or from building an effective movement for single-payer health care.[6] Clearly, the revival of a labour and social movement that can effectively defend working people against capital is essential to undermining the appeal of both right-wing populism and fascism among working-class people. However, our ability to begin to rebuild our own class and social organizations is threatened by an emboldened fascist right. We have already seen thugs disrupting attempts to organize on campuses around the US[7], and we can expect similar attempts to prevent effective organizing in workplaces and communities around solidaristic, pro-working class politics. Put simply, we cannot counter-pose anti-fascist action and ongoing organizing in workplaces and communities — they are both necessary if the left and working people are to retake the political initiative in the US and other capitalist societies.

Charlie Post is a long time socialist and activist who teaches at the City University of New York.

[1] For an overview of various fascist groupings see Charis JB, “Know Your Hate Groups” The Nib (September 11, 2017) [https://thenib.com/know-your-hate-groups?utm_campaign=web-share-links&utm_medium=social&utm_source=email]

[2] See C. Post “We Got Trumped: Results and Prospects After the 2016 Election” International Soclalist Review 104 (Spring 2017) [http://isreview.org/issue/104/we-got-trumped] for a detailed analysis of Trump’s electoral base.

[3] Brendan O’Neill, “No, Hitler Was Not Democratically Elected” Spiked (February 27, 2017) [http://www.spiked-online.com/newsite/article/no-hitler-was-not-democratically-elected/19510#.WbqDnLKGOUl]

[4] “A Socialist Approach to Free Speech” Jacobin (February 27, 2017) [https://www.jacobinmag.com/2017/02/garton-ash-free-speech-milo-yiannopoulos]. For a similar perspective see Alan Sears, “Free Speech and Equity” New Socialist (September 11, 2017) [http://newsocialist.org/free-speech-and-equity/]

[5] Louis Proyect’s “Could Punching Nazis Have Prevented Hitler From Taking Power” Counterpunch (September 8, 2017) [https://www.counterpunch.org/2017/09/08/could-punching-nazis-have-prevented-hitler-from-taking-powe/] is a good example of how not to criticize anti-fascist militants.

[6] Robert Greene II, “The Left After Charlottesville” Jacobin (September 7, 2017) [https://www.jacobinmag.com/2017/09/charlottesville-antifa-trump-medicare-for-all]

[7] Mukund Rathi, “Berkeley Can’t Give In To Fear” Socialist Worker.Org (August 25, 2017) [https://socialistworker.org/2017/08/25/berkeley-cant-give-in-to-fear]