Fascism and Anti-Fascism: reflections on recent debates on the US Left
The election of Donald Trump and the resulting uptick of racist violence since November 2016 has placed the issue of fascism back on the agenda of the US left. In the past few months, socialists, anarchists and other radicals in the US are debating what fascism is (and is not) and how (or how not) to fight it. Among the issues this essay addresses are whether our defense of ‘free speech’ extend to fascists or do we attempt to ‘no platform’ fascists? Do we merely attempt to outnumber fascists or physically confront them as well? Do we rely on the state and university administrations or mass mobilizations from below to oppose fascism? Whether anti-fascist organizing is a diversion or necessary element of rebuilding militant labor and social movements?
The global economic slump that began in 2008 has produced a profound political polarization across the capitalist world. As the living and working conditions for broad segments of workers and the middle classes (small business people, professionals, managers, supervisors) have deteriorated, and the neo-liberal capitalist political establishment—conservative and social-democratic alike—have been discredited, significant segments of the population have sought more radical political alternatives.
On the left, we have seen explosive movements of young people like Occupy Wall Street in the US, the movement of the squares in Spain and recently ‘Up at Night’ in France demanding secure employment, education, health care and social services. Electorally, left populist formations have arisen—some outside of traditional reformist parties (Podemos in Spain, the Bloco de Esquerda in Portugal); others inside social-democratic or even capitalist parties (Corbynism in Britain, the Sanders campaign in the US)—giving political expression to an emerging left-wing radicalization.
However, the main political beneficiaries of the growing disenchantment with the neo-liberal status quo has been a new populist right. Railing against both ‘globalists’ and racialized immigrants, this populist-nationalist right has scored important electoral breakthroughs in Britain with the ‘Brexit’ vote, France with the growth of the National Front and the recent electoral gains of the Alternative for Germany. As we will see, the same social and political factors that have fueled the growth of the national-populist right have also created the space for the re-emergence of fascist gangs in a number of industrialized capitalist societies.
The election of Donald Trump to the US Presidency in 2016 is the most visible manifestation of this dynamic. Trump’s middle-class insurgency in the Republican party was swept into the White House on an ‘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 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. They have, like most of 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 color, 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. While there is considerable interpretation of militants and de facto cooperation between Trump, the National Front in France and other right-populist formations and actual fascist gangs, the populist right relies primarily on elections to win power.
Fascism is not primarily an electoral movement. Instead it is a social movement that recruits and consolidates its membership and wins power through violence and terror. Fascist groups are street fighters who seek to physically intimidate their enemies — the left, union activists, people of color, immigrants, Muslims and queer folks. The ultimate goal of fascist movements is crush any and all independent organizations of working and oppressed people through the establishment of a single-party dictatorship.
The conditions for a fascist seizure of power do not exist in the US or any other capitalist society today. Handing power over to fascists has risks for capitalists. On the one hand, handing power to the fascists 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 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 mid-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. 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.
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 to join the British Union of Fascists — they marched to terrorize the population. When the Nazis, Proud Boys and other street scum 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. Instead fascist organizations build themselves through collective violence against organized workers, the left, people of color, queer folks, Muslims 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.
Clearly, the rise of the ‘alt-Right,’ which includes both right-wing ideologues and fascists thugs, makes it a challenge to operationalize this distinction. When Milo Yiannopoulis ‘outs’ undocumented university students, he makes them targets for both the Immigration and Customs Enforcement police, but for fascist gangs who harass and terrorize them. Anne Coulter also skirts the boundaries between persuasion and intimidation when she encouraged the formation of ‘death squads’ if Trump and the Republicans agree to any immigration reform that would legalize undocumented immigrants. However, our ability to effectively argue to ‘no-platform’ fascists depends upon this distinction.
Some on the liberal and even socialist left agree that fascists should not be allowed to organize and mobilize. However, they 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. 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 despite the claims of some on the US left. 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 US socialists have argued that anti-fascist actions divert energy from reorganizing unions or from building an effective movement for single-payer health care. Clearly, the revival of a labor 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. As the growing socialist left turns to workplace organizing, we should be prepared to confront attempts by fascist groupings to disrupt and prevent the rebuilding of a militant labor movement. 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 labor activist who teaches at the City University of New York. He would like to thank Todd Gordon, Richard Seymour, Ugo Palheta, Jim Wolfreys, Tithi Bhattacharya, Bill Mullen, Jr., and Aaron Jaffe for comments on an earlier version of this essay.