Fascism in the Contemporary US: Definition and Action

For the past four years, ever since the rise of Trump, political analysis and popular discourse in the United States has been consumed with the question of fascism. Is Trump a fascist? Is the US becoming a fascist state? Has it always been a fascist state? How do we fight fascism? What does fascism even mean? These burning questions, which have been hotly debated everywhere from the most Marxist to the most liberal circles, deserve critical discussion. What follows is our small contribution to this vital debate.

What is fascism?

The original rise of fascism in the inter-war period, first with Mussolini’s movement in Italy and later most notably with Nazism in Germany, prompted a series of debates among the radical left as the socialist and workers’ movements tried to define and contend with this new enemy. The Communist International (Comintern) played a leading role in this debate. The German communist Clara Zetkin and Bulgarian communist Georgi Dimitrov put forward two separate but interlocking analyses, which we take as our starting point.

Georgi Dimitrov rejected the view of fascism as having a petit-bourgeois or lumpenproletarian class character, or of standing above class conflict, but rather ascribed to it the role of extreme bourgeois reaction. He characterized it as:

“the organization of terrorist vengeance against the working class and the revolutionary section of the farmers and academics. In foreign policy, fascism is jingoism in its most brutal form, fomenting bestial hatred of other nations.”

Dimitrov, main report to seventh Comintern conference

The firmly bourgeois content of fascist rule contrasts with its ideological form, it claims to be “beyond left and right” and often falsely appropriates the legacy of certain left wing movements (from Cercle Proudhon to Falangist “National Syndicalism” to the National Socialist German Workers’ Party).

Fascist movements can claim to respect historical leftism against modern leftism, and call for the spirit of old proletarian class struggles to be sublated into new racist offensives and international conquests. Of course, this is nonsense. No matter how impressive one’s parades are, the fundamental contradiction between the bourgeois and proletarian classes in a capitalist mode of production cannot be permanently resolved except by the end of this mode. This fascist struggle winds up adding the war against proletarian class interests to its platform rather than overcoming this war.

However, crucially as Clara Zetkin noted, the illusion of resolution of class conflict is in part advanced not only by rhetorical appeals to “left” as well as to the extreme right, but also by the direct mobilization of militias and movements reaching directly into the lower classes, even as they are mobilized against the political interests of the conscious proletariat.

It is to be noted here that, particularly given the diverse legal mechanisms recognized as “democratic” under bourgeois rule, we don’t have the strongest possible criteria for when bourgeois rule is employing fascism rather than “normal” state repression complete with democratic rights.

While Dimitrov defined fascism as a qualitatively different form of bourgeois state from the liberal-democratic one, he also emphasized that there is always a tendency for the civil liberties of the proletariat to be violated even in natural bourgeois democracies. He called, in his report to the seventh Comintern congress, for struggle against this ordinary bourgeois reaction as a key part of the struggle against fascism. Quantitative changes away from bourgeois-democracy eventually transform into a qualitative change in the state apparatus to fascism.

Whoever does not fight the reactionary measures of the bourgeoisie and the growth of fascism at these preparatory stages is not in a position to prevent the victory of fascism, but, on the contrary, facilitates that victory.

Dimitrov, main report to seventh Comintern conference

It is precisely this point where a proletarian and Marxist perspective in regards to fascism is needed. The Nazi regime was not a foreign imposition or unprecedented aberration in Weimar Germany, but rather grew out of it organically, as it can out of any bourgeois state given the correct objective and subjective conditions.

“Full” democratic rights can and will always be curtailed in the interests of capital, and in the United States for the oppressed peoples, they generally have been. On the one hand, the Indigenous peoples’ sovereignty is theoretically recognized by the state (although practically the US always and everywhere tramples upon their rights), but on the other hand, there are internally colonized peoples such as the Hawai’ians and Afro-Americans, whose citizenship has never really guaranteed them full equality before the law or in practice in society.

However, even when we consider matters from the vantage point of the dominant national identity, it is clear that there is no hard line between bourgeois democracy and fascism. Both are on a spectrum of bourgeois rule, predicated upon the depth of political, economic, and social crisis, and held back or allowed to rush forward based upon the subjective resistance of democratic and progressive elements.

Consider that in the decades since the crushing of the New Left (effectively culminating under the Reagan administration), successive administrations have taken advantage of ever more sweeping powers vested in the executive office of the Presidency. This erosion of the separation of the powers has emboldened the rising fascist right (who in recent years openly referred to Trump as “our guy”), who correctly identify the reorganization of the state as facilitating the employment of anti-communist, national chauvinist, and gender-based oppression. While it is still the case in the US (even under Trump), that liberals and radicals can and do make a sport out of mocking Trump as an individual and arch-reactionaries who see him as their vehicle to power, anyone who has been paying attention must also concede that as this is being written worrying moves are being made to strangle practical grassroots resistance (and in practical terms, resistance by oppressed peoples in particular as well as the radical left).

In many states today, Black Lives Matter protesters are under threat of direct state repression from more mainstream figures than Donald Trump such in Florida, where the governor has proposed to collectively charge all demonstrators for crimes committed in the vicinity of a protest and to arrest those organizing and funding protests (which will undoubtedly lead to anti-Semitic repression, given the Republican Party’s recent trend towards conspiracy theories around figures like George Soros). They are also under threat of state-promoted but private attacks, as can be seen in the massive increase in car-ramming attacks since the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, which have been promoted by right-wing media figures and politicians, aided by the proposal of “Black Lives Splatter” bills to protect such attackers from prosecution. In the recent bout of protests in Wisconsin, a teenage right-wing extremist has been celebrated as a hero by the entire conservative movement for murdering two protesters. Portsmouth Virginia very nearly carried out a judicial crackdown against the state’s NAACP, leftist attorneys, and a black state senator using the excuse that the city saw a protest against the city’s monument to the Confederate military. In the American west, Republican legislators achieving political goals through armed standoffs happens on an almost annual basis.

As Zetkin separates between reactionary “revenge” by narrow elements of the ruling class and a broad-based arch-reactionary movement that can be called “fascism”, we have a means of separating out the crushing of an oppositional force or a revolutionary organization in particular and a general order of “fascism” in general. But what we do not have precisely speaking is one exact moment where a quantitative process of political hegemonization by arch-reactionaries shifts into a qualitative change from a democratic state to a fascist state. After all, as Engels stated and Lenin emphasized, there is no free state, because the state is necessarily a condition of unfreedom predicated upon the repressive violence of the ruling classes.

Does this mean we should not be able to speak about fascism at all until we are ourselves being deported to death camps? We could wash our hands of the entire question, much as Bordiga did, and ascribe the entire affair to an inevitable series of events under bougeois rule and discard “anti-fascism” as a cause. Bordiga’s theoretical line of struggle followed naturally from this analytical starting point, embracing everywhere and only the struggle against capitalism-imperialism with the exclusive goals of anti-colonial and proletarian revolution. Concrete experience, however, tells us that there is something distinctly known as fascism, which really does, as Zetkin and Dimitrov warned, destroy our capacity to organize for precisely these struggles, and that victory against fascism in a particular country does in fact strengthen the hand of the proletariat and oppressed peoples.

The fact that we cannot offer a precise formula for identifying where and when a fascist state will definitely and completely emerge should in fact, not unduly trouble us, because the struggle against fascism is, like fascism itself, a dynamic process. Fascism’s arch-reactionary and popular nature mean that it has both a greater will and greater means to crush all dissent, particularly socialist and progressive dissent. But the necessity of its emergence is predicated upon a depth of crisis severe enough that the ruling classes may at first be hesitant to embrace it, and those who lead the charge likewise will have chaotic interests and instincts.

Broadly speaking, we can say that a process of fascisization will be “complete” when we cannot identify any difference between fascist forces and the state itself, when there is no capacity whatsoever to escape criminalization for opposing fascism. But crucially, we do not and cannot wait for this exact moment to become anti-fascists, but, just as in general we must appropriate all liberatory struggles when they emerge and on the terms of how they fit into the broader struggle, our anti-fascism must take diverse forms of opposition to those arch-reactionary elements even as they have yet to seize control of all the levers of state power whether that day is distant or near.

The CPUSA and Anti-Fascism

Interestingly, in spite of the contradictory nature of the US (as a settler-colonial and imperialist state) meaning that the most brutal colonial violence and popular repression was visited upon the internally colonized peoples alongside a comparatively much less repressive state of affairs for white dissidents, the question of anti-fascism for white communists emerged long ago, in the so-called “Third Period”. While the Third Period was fraught with problems internationally (something which we will take up in a coming piece on the relative lines of Bukharin and Stalin and the lessons to be drawn for the US in particular and for Marxism-Leninism internationally), there were many positives to this period for the CPUSA.

The Third Period thesis in the Comintern stated that the world order was passing into an era of such generalized revolution that a general revolutionary/counter-revolutionary dialectic was emerging in more or less all countries. Those classes and political trends which were not revolutionary were accordingly counter-revolutionary and fascist, owing to the particularly revolutionary times in which they supposedly lived. In some countries such as Germany, this reflected the real conditions due to the rising and direct threat of fascism in that country itself.

In countries where fascism was not on the doorstep, this line accordingly now seems erroneous because of the isolation it imposed upon communist parties in these countries. The United States and other settler-colonial countries represent an interesting exception because although they generally did not face an immediate threat of fascisization of the state, the national question was so pressing that it now seems advantageous that such an extreme line was drawn in the sand between the progressive forces and the oppressor nation’s bourgeoisie.

In the United States, the Third Period was in fact the period of the Black Belt Thesis of Harry Haywood, and the revolutionary organization of sharecroppers in the Black Belt South. To an internally colonized people such as the Afro-Americans, it was in fact difficult to distinguish between the racist white order and the forces of Nazi fascism. However, in their correct identification of Nazism as a greater threat to the poor and oppressed than imperialism in general, the Browderites made a U-turn and built a popular front predictated upon an alliance (ongoing to this day) with US liberalism, with white reformists, with the Democratic Party.

What alternative might we have proposed, hindsight being 20/20? It is actually quite easy to imagine that if we could travel backwards in time, we would have struggled in the CPUSA for a line of anti-colonial struggle in the US by the oppressed nations (chiefly the Indigenous and Afro-Americans), and identification of the logic of Jim Crow and the Indian Reservation system with that of Nazism in Germany. A popular front of sorts would have been advanced between the class conscious workers of all nationalities and the broad masses of the oppressed nationalities in the US, such that upon the outbreak of World War II, the CPUSA would have advocated for uniting the two struggles. As did actually occur, CPUSA cadre would have fought in World War II against fascism, but also would have exposed the particular racism employed against Japanese-Americans (Japanese comrades having been prominent in the CPUSA in Hawai’i in particular) relative to other US citizens with a family background in one of the Axis states. After the war, this could have allowed for an earlier and more militant civil rights movement, allying Indigenous struggle with Afro-American struggle in the south and Japanese and Hawai’ian struggle for racial equality and cultural/national rights, with the claim that what the CPUSA had fought against in Europe and Asia during the war (violent oppression which employed mass racism) so too were they now fighting in some other form in the US itself.

The Historical Rise of US Fascism

Having already spoken about the idea of a generalized bourgeois democratic rule in the US which is presently under a process of threat, a rising fascism, we need to speak about where this trajectory effectively began. From the perspective of the state, we can highlight the economic and political beginnings of this trend in the 1970s, under Nixon, Ford, and Carter.

The 1970s were a crucial turning point in US history, in which US imperialism was embroiled in and successfully overcame several interlocking crises. Vietnam, Watergate, Black Power, industrial militancy, and a global capitalist crisis put tremendous pressure on the US state, necessitating policies of increased repression.

Besides being a period of global capitalist restructuring, in the US the early 1970s were the era where the most promising trend within the Black Liberation Movement and on the radical left at that point, the Black Panther Party, first began to splinter and decline. To the credit of the subjective organization of Black radicals, a real response was formulated in the turn towards the Black Liberation Army, but both were broadly defeated by the end of the decade. Nixon’s “war on drugs” and the new approach to policing and other state security apparatus in the 1970s weakened the biggest internal threat to US imperialism and to a great extent the radical left which relied on Black organizers and organizations. Between flooding Black ghettos with drugs, increased police presence, the overt and covert actions of the FBI, Black nationalists and other Black radicals were largely neutralized by the end of the decade.

To compound this bleak political context, the US economy faced the beginning of a devastating and profound de-industrialization, wiping out the livelihoods of many working class communities with residual effects on the agricultural communities nearby. President Ford, looking for a scapegoat for imperialism’s search for new labor markets and free trade policies, blamed the social welfare policies of previous presidents, most notably in his refusal to bail out New York City. Allowing NYC to declare bankruptcy only increased conservatives’ desire for punishing communities served by social programs and oppressed groups who were cast as parasitical in a situation where the rest of the economy faltered as stagflation destroyed earnings, savings, and jobs.

Carter replaced Ford in 1977 but the damage was done. Despite the lingering power of the movements of the late 60’s and early 70’s, Carter was unwilling or unable to offer concessions to or at least get out of the way of these movements. His economic policy was erratic and signaled a lack of direction or vision in how to solve the quandary that the US economy was in. As de-industrialization proceeded, resentment simmered towards those groups that had been extracted concessions out of the US government in the previous era. Carter’s rapid cycling between different economic philosophies and appointment of Volcker to the Federal Reserve Board undermined commitments that had been made for full employment as a guiding objective of Federal Reserve Board policy and left Carter exposed to popular rage that his appointee flouted any commitment to pursuing full employment.

Reagan’s economic program acted as kind of jump start for a flagging US imperialism, with an assault on organized working class power and a gutting of social services creating greater profits for the premier imperialist power, a trend which was able to continue upwards for decades thanks to the new markets opened up in the 1990s by the fall of the former socialist bloc (but of course, in bourgeois liberal historiography, credited to President Clinton).

Much as post-Apartheid South Africa has retained the status of its white rich and black poor thanks to the power of the market to widen all gaps between rich and poor regardless of their nation or race, so too did the ever-more vicious policies of US imperialism at home, culminating under Reagan, succeed in largely reversing many of the social gains of the 1950s-1960s Civil Rights Movement, further dividing white and Black America.

Notably, while the KKK, already a force in the South during the entirety of the Civil Rights Movement, became emboldened by the state’s crackdown on Black radicals and the consequent deeper marginalization of Black communities in the 1970s, the militia movement as we know it today emerged in the 1980s, growing in strength under Reagan and grabbing headlines in the 1990s.

For most readers, the Clinton era and the 1990s is actually where the story begins. Most young comrades grew up in an era where the Civil Rights Movement was an important legal gain taught to them in history books, but where the concrete defeats of the Afro-American people and gains by white racists which made the 1970s and 1980s so agonizing were already completed processes. In this context, the Clintons do not appear to so many young people as the capstone of a gradual defeat of progress during the second half of the 20th century, despite President Clinton and Hillary Clinton’s “super-predator” rhetoric which is now well-known.

For younger people joining the struggle only in the 21st century, there is a general picture of the Republicans and Democrats as merely aloof politicians without such direct malicious behavior as the above history demonstrates, and the Democrats as the more “liberal” and “left” side of this system. In this context, Obama was able to appear a hopeful candidate to millions without having to greatly change the system in any particular way, and conversely, was able to be vilified in thinly-concealed racist rhetoric by Republicans as a harbinger of Black radicalism and anti-Americanism without any fear that actual radicals would step onto the scene to give lie to this narrative.

Throughout this entire period, presidential powers were strengthened and US police have become increasingly militarized. As the stock market has fluctuated and crises of increasing severity have set in, no source of economic rescue seems in sight (there is no new Cold War to be won, space capitalism is not about to be rolled out, despite Elon Musk’s high hopes). Capitalism, increasingly speculative in its operations, is running out of exploitation through which to make profit margins go up. The state, knowing that social conflicts will increase amidst climate and economic catastrophes which seem all but inevitable, has been arming its shock troops and allowing for militias to grow more or less unchecked. Thus, when the 2008 Global Financial Crisis hit, perhaps it was inevitable that we would eventually have to discuss the possibility of fascism in the United States.

But we must bear in mind Zetkin’s distinction between “revenge” against revolutionary forces and a general assault against the working classes. The 20th century offers us something of a miniature version of this, a kind of prelude, in the beating back of Black radicals and communists, which we can say is “state self-defence” but not “fascism”, and the real effects on the populace at large which have been warning signs of the potential fascist direction: the building and rebuilding of fascist militias “outside” the state, the erosion of civil liberties and increase of executive power which can be united with said militias, the increase in “tough on crime” rhetoric and laws which can be used to criminalize community self-defence as well as to control and exploit particularly oppressed populations.

Under Trump, many of these processes are culminating, and we just recently witnessed him give a “stand-by” order to a Pinochet-venerating street gang on live television as well as boasting about the police execution of Michael Reinoehl (during a Presidential debate, no less). Whether this is the beginning of the end for all bourgeois democratic rights, or simply the latest red flag on our current march that may only culminate in “full” fascism one or more presidents down the line, we cannot say.

How do we fight rising fascism? The liberal and reformist answers

We have established that the United States is in the midst of a trend toward fascism, which if it moves forward unchecked, can result in a sea change in how we are forced to discuss and do politics. This trend is pronounced enough not only to provoke discussions among radicals, but even to wake the liberals from their slumber and to get the reformists to look up from their gradualist plans. What are the responses of the mainstream, and are they sufficient for our anti-fascist tasks?

By now we are all accustomed to the response of the liberals. Every new outrage committed by Trump and his regime prompts another cycle of tweets denouncing Trump’s fascist character and proclaiming that unless we act now the US will become a total dictatorship. And by “acting,” they mean uncritically voting for the Democratic Party, calling senators, maybe going to an official protest if you’re feeling ambitious, and putting all your trust in a patchwork of institutions, laws, and conventions that have time and time again crumbled under the slightest pressure if they resist at all.

Even more frustratingly, often the rhetoric is aimed as much at the radical left as at the figures these liberals claim to be #Resisting: figures such as Biden haven’t offered a meaningful resistance to Trump, but rather Biden agrees with the need to arrest “anarchists”, Biden argues for shooting protesters “in the leg”, and so on. As we know, Biden and his running mate Kamala Harris are both “tough on crime” figures specifically designed to appeal to the sort of people who would otherwise vote for Trump but might prefer someone slightly more polite.

Mainstream “left” figures are often scarcely better, with figures such as Bernie Sanders being unwilling to openly defend anti-fascist struggle in the US. Instead, he and many of the prominent spokespeople of mainstream DSA-style social democracy choose to remain largely silent on how to really respond to fascism in deeds. Even in words, much of the reformist left cannot even bring itself to identify fascists by that name, and instead choose to limit themselves to liberal-friendly appeals to civility under the rubric of opposing “divisive” and “hateful” speech.

Ultimately this disease does not only affect centrists and leftists who are nationalists of one kind of another. Often white leftists in particular will hold at arms’ length the practical work of combating fascism because their particular microsect cannot dominate this work as a recruitment tactic (Bob Avakian’s pretensions to doing so notwithstanding). While less so than in recent decades past, and by no means at any point exclusively, anarchists dominate anti-fascist organizing in the United States for the obvious reason of their perpetual aversion to reformism.

The revolutionary socialist answer

While Struggle for a New World as a small collective, and revolutionary socialists as a relatively small political trend in the US, cannot approach this struggle as if we will be its inevitable leaders or have some prefabricated blueprint, it seems perfectly clear what we must do: not only to unite in real practical terms with others in the revolutionary socialist universe, not only to unite with the struggles for liberation of oppressed peoples against the imperialist and fascist violence they face, but to participate in the construction of a broad anti-fascist front of peoples of all backgrounds who defend equal democratic rights.

This front’s tasks are already demonstrably varied: from electoralist propaganda to community-based political education, from militant street confrontations and mass protests to intelligence gathering and sabotage of fascist forces. The revolutionary socialists must unite not only among ourselves in defence of these tasks in theory, but together with all forces carrying out these tasks in practice.

How do we do this, in practical terms?

It goes without saying that we consider the revolutionary socialists must organically connect with explicit anti-fascist organizing in their area, helping with intelligence and resources, principally human resources. This ought to be a primary task as the specter of “full” fascism looms ever nearer, and it is one which many are already taking up. As Marxism has reasserted itself on the US left as a dynamic ideological approach for a new generation, we are witnessing a rise in communists joining their local anti-fascist networks. This is an extremely heartening sign in a country where much of the population of white leftists have historically been reformist and legalist in practice, and where Marxism has been distorted, denigrated, and ignored.

Additionally, it must be said that the anti-fascist raison d’être of “community self-defense” is only as meaningful as the communities in which we operate. Obviously in communities of oppressed nationalities, this slogan is far easier to ingrain as even under more democratic circumstances these communities had reason to collectively fear or regard the state with suspicion, and as the targets of fascist militia violence, they necessarily cannot be recruited to join the fascists.

None the less, it is possible and important to work even with white communities as a whole, or at least to a greater extent than is currently practised, for anti-fascist work. This goes beyond electoralism and electoralist methods of leafletting and into joining or starting a trade union at your work and raising political consciousness there; building mutual aid networks to reach into the community and to foster connections within members; putting on and attending social events and other chances to draw in “unorganized” elements and engage, educate, and discuss politics and the threat we face in rising fascism; and the building of practical political groups for the broad left outside of “crews”, such as the Socialist Rifle Association or an anti-war coalition.

Because of the special attention fascism as an “emergency” arch-reactionary ideology pays to the reinforcement of patriarchal gender expectations and norms, women’s groups and LGBT+ groups are an especially good site of recruitment, discussion, and organization. The bourgeois class character as well as white-dominated nature of so much of mainstream feminist and LGBT+ rhetoric has been a means by which the Democratic Party in particular have subverted the rightful demands of these gender-oppressed into an exhausted cheerleading of the US Democratic Party, even as the latter do everything they sabotage their own electoral chances.

However, the very fact that the Democratic Party and centrist liberals insist on posing themselves as the protectors of LGBT+ people and as the #Resistance against Trump means that they can be held up to scrutiny over the coherence and actuality of these claims. The Democrats demand the voters’ votes and indeed loyalty in exchange for “protection” from the conservatism of the Republicans, specifically citing their support for abortion rights and LGBT+ rights. But in practice they do nothing as these rights are eroded for the working class and new dangers await all gender-oppressed as this trajectory continues.

By employing broad historical analysis and exposure of the Democrats and other liberal forces in a manner much as outlined in this piece allows us to both connect to and raise the political consciousness of moderates with whom we interact, who are rightly fearful of fascism. It is by means of identifying Biden as Trump-esque and Trump as the outcome of continuously deepening crisis presided over by Biden-style politics that we can differentiate between those who are merely not the target of anti-fascist organizing (the bourgeois democratic state, devout reformists) and our real allies in organized anti-fascist struggle (whether they are socialists or oppressed nation nationalists or merely sufficiently serious liberal reformists who demonstrate a will to stand against fascism in practice).

Together, with these tools, we can and must stop fascism in its tracks. Shoulder to shoulder against fascism! Build the broad anti-fascist front!

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