Some thoughts on fascism and the current moment

This is the text of a talk I gave at the Left Forum in New York City on 29 June 2019, as part of a panel entitled “What Is Fascism and How Do We Fight It.”

Originally posted on Three Way Fight.

This is the text of a talk I gave at the Left Forum in New York City on 29 June 2019, as part of a panel entitled “What Is Fascism and How Do We Fight It.” The panel was sponsored by the NYC-based group United Against Racism and Fascism, and the other presenters focused on that group’s organizing work. I’ve added a postscript to my talk that addresses some of the questions and criticisms raised during the discussion period.

We are living in a dangerous and frightening period in U.S. history. We have lived through two and half years of the most right-wing and authoritarian presidential administration in living memory. We’ve seen an upsurge of militant rightist forces with an array of repressive and supremacist agendas—alt-rightists, white nationalists, Patriot groups, Christian rightists, and others. And we’ve seen a rise in supremacist violence by the state and by forces outside the state—against immigrants and refugees, against people of color, against Muslims, against trans people, against Jews, and against others.

So it makes sense that people have been talking about fascism, as we try to understand these threats and mobilize against them. This is what I want to focus on in my talk this morning: How can we use the concept of fascism to better understand the current situation in the U.S., and to better organize to change it?

Clearly, at least some of the forces we are facing are fascist, but which ones? Neonazis for sure, but what about the Proud Boys, who celebrate “western chauvinism” but include men of color as a significant fraction of their membership? What about Christian right groups, whose supremacist politics centers on gender and sexuality rather than race or ethnicity? And what about Donald Trump—is he a fascist? Is the Republican Party? Is the whole U.S. political system? There are a lot of different ways that people are answering these questions.

Some of the talk about fascism has been helpful, but a lot of it has been vague or confusing or distracting.

Some people use “fascism” to mean any dictatorship or any racist politics. As political rhetoric that speaks to the sense of urgency that we need to stop these things now—but as political analysis it’s too broad to be helpful. Not every dictatorship is fascist. Hitler’s or Mussolini’s dictatorship was very different from an absolute monarchy or a theocratic regime or a military junta, and if we call all of them fascist, we hide those differences.

And not all racism—not even all genocide—is fascist. Institutionalized racial oppression and mass killing have been foundational to the United States from the beginning, and white supremacist ideology has been dominant in the U.S. for most of this country’s history. That history is interconnected with fascism, and it has helped to inspire fascists such as Hitler, but if we say that the United States has been fascist throughout its history, then the term loses meaning.

Recently, some writers have started using the term “neoliberal fascism” to describe the right-wing upsurge. It’s a term that represents a broad unity of right-wing forces, from pro-capitalist think-tanks, which focus on things like deregulating industry and privatizing government services, to the Trump administration with its border repression and trade wars, all the way through to neonazi gangs, which want to build an all-white ethno-state. The idea of neoliberal fascism is that all of these forces are basically pulling in the same direction. The problem is—that’s really not true. Most of the groups in the U.S. that I would call fascist loathe and despise neoliberalism and the business interests it’s intended to serve. And most neoliberals oppose things like border walls and trade wars—not to mention white ethno-states—as incompatible with their vision of a free market where capitalists can exploit workers wherever and whenever they want.

Right-wing forces in the United States are not united. They disagree profoundly about what they want to achieve and how they want to get there. They pose different kinds of threats to our communities and our movements, and they require different strategies to combat them. We need a concept of fascism that clarifies and illuminates these differences—not one that hides them under language that’s too broad and too vague. So I want to offer some suggestions on how to use the term fascism in a way that’s analytically meaningful and strategically helpful in our current situation.

I think it’s important to get away from the idea that there’s some objectively true definition of fascism out there. Unless we’re talking about Mussolini’s movement in Italy —Fascism with a capital F—we’re talking about fascism as a general category, and we’re making determinations about which movements and regimes should be included and which should not. And there’s nothing objectively true about how we draw those boundaries. Rather, it’s a question of whether a certain concept of fascism is useful or not —whether it helps us understand political connections and political differences, and helps guide us to act more effectively.

To be useful, conceptions of fascism should be specific enough that they don’t lump everything together, but they should be flexible enough that they allow for diversity within the fascist current, and flexible enough to cover changes in fascism over time. In the 1930s and 40s, Italian Fascism and German Nazism had a lot in common, but they also had important differences in what they believed and what they did. And today, even groups that directly lay claim to the heritage of 1930s fascism differ from it in important ways.

Without getting too focused on precise wording, I want to outline a few features that I think are key elements of fascist politics in the U.S. today. Those features are:

  • contradictory relationship with the established order, 
  • rejection of the existing political system, 
  • a totalizing effort to transform society, and 
  • independent, organized mass mobilization. 

Let me break those down. Contradictory relationship with the established order means groups or movements that aim to intensify social hierarchy, oppression, and exploitation but also challenge established elites in real ways. It’s a combination of repressiveness and rebelliousness that can sound like a weird mix of conservatism and radicalism, and it speaks primarily to people who feel threatened from both above and below. These folks hold some degree of power or privilege in society, which they fear is being challenged by oppressed groups rising up, but they also feel beaten down by political, economic, or cultural elites above them. This is the classic dynamic of right-wing populism, and it describes a whole host of political currents in this country, only some of which are fascist.

The second feature I mentioned is rejection of the existing political system. I think a key dividing line within the U.S. political right is between those forces that are basically loyal to the existing political system and those forces that want to secede from it or overthrow it altogether. Translated into leftists terms, it’s a division between reformists and revolutionaries. In the early 1980s, a section of the white supremacist movement decided that they could no longer achieve their goals within the framework of the United States, and literally went to war with the U.S. government. That same shift can also be found, less dramatically, in sections of the Christian right and other currents.

The third feature that I think is key to fascism is a totalizing effort to transform society. This is partly about exerting political violence and moving toward a dictatorship, but it’s not just about suppressing dissent—it’s about reshaping society according to a whole ideological vision. In classical fascism that vision was about national or racial renewal. In today’s fascism, I would argue, it can also be about religion or some other all-defining set of beliefs. And the dictatorship doesn’t have to be a massive nation-state or empire. Many of today’s fascists actually advocate breaking up political entities into smaller units, and exercising totalizing control through small-scale institutions such as local government, church congregations, or the patriarchal family.

The fourth and last key feature is independent, organized mass mobilization. Fascism doesn’t just repress people—it energizes and activates them, and it organizes them in formations built outside established political channels. In the 1930s, a lot of that was paramilitary formations such as the Black Shirts and the Brown Shirts. Today it could be online chat rooms—or homeschooling networks. As in the past, independent organization is partly about developing dual power challenges to the established political order, and partly about directly transforming society at all levels.

If we’re trying to map fascism’s key features, it’s also useful to highlight some of the points that I didn’t include—points that people often associate with traditional fascist politics. One of these is white supremacist ideology. All U.S. fascist currents bolster racial oppression to a greater or lesser degree, but not all of them uphold old-school explicit white supremacism. Some of them, such as the Lyndon LaRouche network, have shifted to color-blind ideology, which bolsters racial oppression by denying its continued reality.

Another feature I didn’t mention is militaristic expansionism, because a large swath of the U.S. far right, whether fascist or not, is staunchly opposed to most U.S. wars and has been for decades.

Glorification of the strong state is not on my list of fascism’s key features, because as I mentioned, many of today’s fascists advocate authoritarianism on a small scale, although some (the LaRouchites again) still uphold the nation-state.

Lastly, I don’t think fascist politics is defined by a defense of capitalism, although many Marxists have considered this axiomatic for generations. There’s a much longer discussion to be had here, but briefly I think it’s an open question whether fascism necessarily upholds capitalist relations or may replace them with qualitatively different forms of economic exploitation. In any case, we should take fascists seriously when they talk about capitalists as an enemy—as for example Christchurch mass murderer Brenton Tarrant did in his online manifesto this past winter.

What does all this mean for today’s political landscape? I would apply the fascism label to some portions of the militant right, including white nationalists (by which I mean those who want to establish an all-white nation), the Lyndon LaRouche network, and hardline Christian right currents such as Christian Reconstructionists, who want to establish a full-blown theocracy. Fascism in my view does not include system-loyal rightists such as most Christian rightists (who function mainly as a pressure group within the Republican Party) or groups such as the Proud Boys (who have tried to position themselves as vigilante allies of the police). Patriot movement groups may or may not be system loyal but generally lack a totalizing drive to reshape society as a whole.

That said, all of these forces have at least definite fascistic tendencies and affinities, and in many cases direct ties with organized fascists. This highlights the point that fascist politics doesn’t exist in isolation. It grows out of an oppressive social order and it exerts its influence largely by interacting with other political currents.

What about Donald Trump? Trump has promoted many elements of fascist politics, and his election was interconnected with a rise of fascist forces. But I don’t think it’s helpful to label him or his administration as fascist. He doesn’t offer any real vision for transforming society, and he hasn’t made any moves to build an independent organizational base, so even if he wanted to overthrow the existing political system, he doesn’t have the leverage needed to do it. At the same time, Trump is an authoritarian, a racist, a misogynist, and he has escalated demonization and scapegoating in ways that are poisonous to the political climate. He is not a fascist, but he is making it easier for fascism to gain ground.

Postscript

During the discussion period, several people challenged or criticized some of the points in my talk. Without trying to summarize the discussion, I want to address a few of the most substantive issues raised.

1. One person countered my approach by summarizing Leon Trotsky’s theory of fascism, more or less as follows: Fascism is a mass movement of the middle classes and unemployed, whose purpose is to wipe out working class organizations, and that serves the interests of finance capital. The key to fighting fascism is working class mobilization and staying independent of the capitalist state and pro-capitalist organizations.

I think Trotsky was right to emphasize fascism’s character as a mass movement, and his call for Communists to join with Social Democrats in an anti-fascist bloc without abandoning revolutionary politics was much better than what the Stalinist parties advocated in the 1930s—either the Third Period claim that Social Democrats (not the Nazis) were the main enemy, or the Popular Front policy of abandoning revolutionary politics in favor of supporting the reformist wing of the ruling class. But an analysis of fascism should be based on a study of what far rightists are actually doing, not on the received authority of what Trotsky or anyone wrote eighty years ago and mechanically applying it to the present.

In the United States today, unlike Germany in the early 1930s, there are no mass-based Social Democratic or Communist organizations, and the whole context for a fascist resurgence is very different. The idea that U.S. fascists’ main target is organized labor just isn’t supported by the evidence. You can find examples from recent decades of fascists attacking unions, but overall their main targets have been people of color, immigrants, LGBT people, Muslims, women, and Jews.

The idea that fascists are acting in the service of the capitalist ruling class has long been a self-evident dictum for Trotskyists and many other Marxists. But another current within Marxism, stretching back to the 1930s or earlier, argues that fascism represents an autonomous right-wing force that aims to take political power away from capitalists and clashes with capitalist interests in important ways. That’s a more accurate summary of what fascists did historically and it’s a much better starting point for understanding U.S. fascism today. For more on this, see my 2008 essay, “Two Ways of Looking at Fascism.”

2. Another audience member argued that the concept of fascist politics I outlined is so broad that it included leftists like himself. He opposes existing elites, he wants to overthrow the existing political system and systematically transform society, he supports independent mass mobilization, he even advocates a dictatorship—the dictatorship of the proletariat.

With this talk I was primarily countering the widespread idea that fascism is basically just a more extreme version of the mainstream right. In the process, I emphasized fascism’s revolutionary side—not revolutionary in any liberatory sense, but in the sense of advocating a sharp and systematic break with the existing order. That’s a reality that makes some leftists uncomfortable because it can seem very close to home, but it’s crucial for understanding fascism’s appeal and the specific danger it poses of pulling support away from liberatory visions of revolution. The key difference, which I tried to make clear in the talk, is that a fascist revolution aims to bolster and increase social hierarchy and oppression, whereas a leftist revolution is about the opposite—at least in theory.

3. A couple of people suggested that my concept of fascism doesn’t adequately take into account fascists’ tendency to hide their beliefs by cloaking them in mythology, and more specifically that some of Europe’s right-wing populist parties systematically disguise fascist agendas behind a populist facade. This is an issue that I think doesn’t have an either/or answer. Certainly, many fascists hide their beliefs, at least in public. In the United States, David Duke and Willis Carto are prime examples of this. But a lot of fascists are extraordinarily frank about their beliefs, however horrifying they may be. The Turner Diaries, William Pierce’s fantasy novel about a genocidal nazi revolution, is a prime example of that—not just for what it says but also for how it became one of the most widely circulated texts in white nationalist circles. A striking feature of the alt-right upsurge of recent years is that many fascists simply abandoned their longstanding impulse to tone down their beliefs for mass consumption. So I think fascists’ honesty about their politics depends on the context and the particular historical situation. We shouldn’t just take people’s political pronouncements at face value, but we should take them seriously and try to learn from them.

4. On Facebook, a couple of people have asked what course of action this analysis points to. Here's how I addressed that question in a talk last year: "To defeat the far right, part of what we need is broad, inclusive coalitions where there is room for people to act in different ways and with different politics—militant and non-militant, leftist and non-leftist. In these coalitions, as Anti-Racist Action put it in their Points of Unity almost thirty years ago, we need to practice non-sectarian defense of antifascists—set aside our differences to support those who are serious about confronting this threat we all face. However, this does not mean that our efforts should be purely defensive, or that we should set aside systemic change in order to 'defend democracy.' Alongside broad coalitions, we also need radical initiatives which target established systems of power and the two major political parties that protect them. In these violent times, when millions of people are angry and confused and frightened, we cannot allow far rightists to present themselves as the only real oppositional force, the only ones committed to real change.

Photo credit

"No Nazi." Photo by r2hox, 6 April 2012 (CC-BY-SA-2.0), via Wikimedia Commons.