The Next Four Years
Today’s fascist movement was conceived through the union of the imperial failures in the Middle East and the bursting of the housing bubble. It gestated over Obama’s eight years in office. During Trump’s four years, it struggled to walk and talk. It was knocked down while taking its first big steps (i.e. the Unite the Right rally), but it kept on going. It started to talk but that talk sounded like gibberish to most of us (i.e. QAnon). But today’s bouts of gibberish are tomorrow’s speeches. Worse, it may not be gibberish at all, just a new language we haven’t deciphered yet. Now, with the explosion of the pandemic, assaults on state capitols around the country, murder of left-wing protesters, and the riot of January 6th: the fascist movement is officially mobile.
The crisis of COVID-19, which mobilized this movement, is still ongoing. With new, more contagious strains of COVID spreading, the situation is likely to get worse.
But what we need to grapple with is that this pandemic has mobilized the entirety of the masses, both left and right wings, across the lower classes. The masses have not been in motion, in this country, since the 1960s. This provides both opportunities and dangers for us. How we harness the energy unleashed from the left-wing uprising against both the Biden administration and the fascists will determine whether or not we make ourselves worthy of leading the masses in the fight for socialism.
But to be able to organize against and crush fascism, we need to understand how it is distinct from other right-wing tendencies and institutions. If the uprising of 2020 showed us that our organizations need to be abolitionist, then the riot in DC showed that our organizations must be anti fascist as well.
Dead End Perspectives
Before going into what fascism is, I’d like to discuss what fascism is not.
When many people discussed Donald Trump as a fascist, they frame it as if at any moment Trump would suddenly drape the White House in Nazi flags and there would be storm troopers marching through DC. This is fundamentally a top-down vision of fascism where it can be imposed on the masses from above, is fully formed and triumphant like in Hollywood movies. From this perspective, the key to fight it is to simply impeach or vote-out fascist politicians.
Other definitions of fascism have confused the violence of the state with fascism itself. The Border Patrol Tactical Unit (BORTAC) has been labeled fascistic, and so have the forced hysterectomies inside the concentration camps along the border. Fascism gets defined as government organizations or tactics. To be sure, the use of BORTAC in Portland during the uprising was terrifying, and the organization probably has fascists in it. Similarly, the forced hysterectomies are a disgusting display of misogyny and racism. But these are both manifestations of the state, which maintains order via violence. There is no limit to the violence that the state would unleash on the masses, no matter who is running it. This perspective creates a sense that fascism is already all around, creating paralysis.
A more sophisticated understanding recognizes that fascism is a movement but then treats it as too incoherent and extreme to connect with the rich and powerful. It sees the ties between the fascist movement and the ruling class as the critical factor, without realizing that movements are dynamic: they are capable of learning, maneuvering, and developing in various ways. Whether or not fascism today is too disconnected from the ruling class does not mean it is not in a position to actively recruit from the rest of the lower classes (i.e. every class beneath the ruling class) and eventually become a recipient of ruling class political and material support. Through this static view of fascism, it can be ignored and we should continue with business as usual.
The “Socialism” of the Frenzied Middle Class
It is important to understand that fascism is a politics of grassroots, mass movement building. It is about recruiting, politically training, and organizing the right-wing into an ideological and physical fighting force against the left-wing.
Movements consist of sections of the masses, which I’m defining as all people. But all people are divided along class lines, and then further divided along lines of identities (with the potential of overlapping identities). Regardless of where individuals line up regarding class and identities, the final question becomes where they land on the political spectrum of left or right-wing. Building a movement is about trying to unite sections of the masses, across these dividing lines, that agree with a particular vision of what society should be like. The people or organizations trying to unite sections of the masses are trying to become leaders over the movement. In turn, if a movement is able to grow, then it is capable of changing people’s minds beyond the actual movement participants. In other words, movements can become political leaders over society.
Like all movements, fascism takes time to develop its numbers, leaders, organization, and theory. Fascism is intended to overthrow bourgeois democracy to establish a fascist dictatorship. In other words, fascism is about winning over large sections of the masses into becoming actual boots on the ground to mobilize them in the fight against leftism and the working class.
In regards to its emphasis on winning over and mobilizing large sections of the masses, it is the sibling of socialism. But whereas socialism builds off of the hope in the working class and its ability to build a new world, fascism builds off of the middle class’s desperation of falling down into the working class and its bitterness at the ruling class. From its class position, it can’t imagine a world of workplace democracy and a democratically planned economy. It can only imagine itself replacing the existing ruling class while retaining the same social structure of bosses and workers in the same anarchic, unplanned economy.
But lacking the financial and political power to compete on an equal basis against the ruling class, it is forced to mobilize the masses to even the playing field. Unlike the working class, which combines its ability to mobilize the masses and its ability to slow/stop/control production, the middle class lacks any social weight at the point of production. So it has to combine the mobilized masses with armed violence. The weight of this violence against the left and the working class eventually allows the fascists to get a seat at the table with the capitalists, while crushing working class leadership over the masses.
This movement aspect is important to understand because this is in contrast to other right-wing reference points, like conservatism or the police.
Conservatives like Ronald Reagan were invested in capitalist democracy. Their main interests were in mobilizing voters. They were not interested in building grassroots movements that could get out of their control. The Tea Party, a short-lived top-down movement, was as far as they were willing to test those waters. For them, the interest was in dismantling social welfare programs, empowering and enriching the capitalist class, and strengthening the armed state by holding political office and keeping the masses apathetic.
The police are simply a section of the armed state. As an organization, they are also not interested in movement building. In fact, movements are exactly what they are meant to crush. As an institution, policing does not require political motivation. Unlike fascist volunteers that have to be inspired and convinced of a fascist worldview, policing is a career that people take up and continue to do in order to pay their bills, whether they like the work or not. Their livelihoods are directly connected to carrying out the violence of the state.
To be clear, conservatives can radicalize and become fascists. Similarly, the daily work experience of committing violence on the poor, working-class, and leftists also creates opportunities for police radicalization into fascism. And plenty of fascists deliberately join the police force to infiltrate and arm themselves. These three elements are distinct but are capable of interconnecting. In fact, the deepening interconnection between the armed state and the fascist movements is a key element in the way that fascism has historically developed itself and gained the trust of the ruling class to rely on it as the nuclear option against the working class.
Children of Crisis
Capitalism naturally creates two crises: over-production and diminishing rates of profit. But capitalism is a dynamic system that exists in a world of human beings that push and pull on it. This means that capitalism, in its attempts to resolve the two fundamental crises, also creates new ones like imperialist war, global warming, and pandemics–and vice-versa these crises have effects upon the economic convulsions of the system.
One side effect of crises is that they create moments when the capitalist class becomes stunned and doesn’t know what to do. In those moments, various sections of the lower classes begin to step up and try to assert their own leadership to point the way out of the crisis. In 2020, the pandemic hit, and the ruling class was slow to react. When it finally did react, it initiated an uneven shutdown of the economy without offering any meaningful financial assistance to the lower classes so they could sit out the shutdown with security and dignity.
In response to this half-hearted leadership from the ruling class, the right-wing sections of the middle class began to publicly rally against the wearing of face masks and for the reopening of the economy. This was their unimaginative leadership. It was fueled by their middle-class positions as desperate small business owners and furious managers. Business owners need to keep their shops open to make ends meet. Managers can’t stand that their employees are working from home, not working at all, or demanding safety measures in the workplace. In the absence of consistent and robust financial assistance, the economic shutdown sent them into a frenzy, and their class solution was to reopen the economy. Better to get sick and die than to become poor or homeless.
The middle-class frenzy only heightened when they saw the uprising after the police murder of George Floyd. The uprising was led by the Black community and pulled the left-wing masses into the streets in the largest uprising in US history. With the politicians, the police, and the National Guard unable to stop the uprising: it further revealed that the ruling class was unable to provide leadership. Worse, the primary tools of the ruling class (the police) were the cause of the uprising. For the right-wing sections of the middle class and the people they mobilized, this only confirmed the need to provide their own political leadership and armed control.
The uprising has to be understood as the crucial turning point in the pandemic because the fascist movement defined itself against the uprising. The uprising was an example of the working class providing leadership and bringing the masses out into the streets. In the face of the economic shutdown without financial assistance, in the face of racist policing and vigilante violence that was trying to prevent the masses from demanding more, in the failure of the ruling class to rationally rule society: the masses, led by the Black working class, demanded the defunding of the police in order to fund our communities. This was the class leadership that could see beyond the world as it exists and into a world of hope. The political leadership of the working class, with the Black community at the vanguard, brought abolitionist politics (i.e. revolutionary politics) into the mainstream.
This is why both fascism and socialism are children of crises. Before major crises erupt, there can be individuals and even small organizations that label themselves as fascist or socialist. But these labels don’t mean much unless those individuals and organizations are connected to mass movements that begin to adopt, develop, and fight for those political ideas. Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders may or may not have respectively labeled themselves as fascists or socialists. But until there were masses that were open to their ideas and to being mobilized, they were just standard politicians working within our top-down capitalist democracy. As ideologies, both require the masses to embrace them and turn them into living movements.
What Trump did during the pandemic, and what Bernie failed to do, was to sharpen the social conflict. By consistently putting out racist, anti-communist statements he was able to define an “us and them” for the frenzied masses. He gave the emerging fascists targets and calls to action in a time of desperation. Bernie, the Squad, and even groups like the Democratic Socialists of America could have taken the lead and sharpened the social conflict from the left. We could have harnessed the energy of the uprising, directed it at the capitalists and the police, and turned the anger into centralized protests, workplace actions, strikes, etc. But where the left failed to provide that leadership, Trump and groups like the Proud Boys seized every opportunity.
Socialism and Anti-fascism
If socialism and fascism are both fundamentally about mass politics and they are both children of crises, then the development of fascism is not just about the failure of the ruling class to lead. It is also about the failure of the socialists to provide a lead. In this political vacuum, the fascists will rush in. We failed to harness the uprising, so they stepped up their militancy, culminating in the January 6th riot.
As socialists, we have to understand mass consciousness and the need for the masses to learn and unlearn different things. Learning about solidarity and anti-racism requires challenging separatism and racism. Avoiding these topics by focusing on “universalist” or “bread and butter” issues hurts us because our job is to help transform the working class into a class that can fight for itself. It can’t fight for itself if it doesn’t identify with every part of itself. All class societies are based on divide-and-conquer. Therefore, if socialism is about the emancipation of the working class, by the working class, as a class: then the working class needs to understand all of the racial, sexual, gendered, and national components that form it. This requires unlearning the racism, transphobia, xenophobia, etc that it is taught. The unlearning of hate is only done by shining a light on it and tackling it. Otherwise, it is allowed to fester and becomes a foothold for the fascists.
The Practical Dangers
Similarly, all people are capable of turning to socialism or fascism during a crisis. In fact, depending on which side is able to demonstrate bold and consistent leadership, one side is capable of peeling people away from the other. In addition, the fascists are actively promoting anti-communism. They are explicit in naming us as their enemy and they are deliberate in trying to counter-protest us. They do not shy away from their task of winning over the leadership of the masses. If we shy away we only create more of a vacuum for them to fill, recruit, and grow.
I raise this because there has been a growing tendency to treat anti-fascist work as a distraction from “the real work”. But socialists will not be able to do the work of 2016-2019 if we leave the fascists alone. We have to recognize that while we are marching on the capitalists ahead of us, we are being threatened by the fascists behind us. If we don’t organize against them, they will grow and surround us, stopping us from ever overthrowing the capitalists. Worse, history has shown that they will kill us. We have to take fascism head-on, just as we take on racism if we want to win the soul of the masses.
Our inaction against the fascists creates a series of problems:
- It demoralizes socialists from the project since we aren’t even willing to defend ourselves
- It proves to the masses that we are not serious about the fight for power
- It proves that the fascists are serious
- It drives lone leftists, or small grouplets, to engage in left-wing violence and terrorism to try and fill the vacuum, which further demoralizes our members and the masses
- It leaves active sections of the masses to turn to the fascism when we don’t offer leadership
Mission to Demoralize
This is why anti-fascist struggle is critical, especially now that the fascist movement is truly coming into being but is still very small. Again, the uprising showed that the vast majority of the masses were supporters of the protests and left-wing politics. We should find confidence in this to actively crush the fascists. Conversely, the fascists have shown that they have grown as well, but they are still not as widely supported as the uprising was. If fascism is about mass movements, and mass movements require victories to boost their morale, then defeats can kill their morale and demobilize them.
We saw an example of this with the rise and fall of the Unite the Right rally in 2017. The event itself was successful in so far as it was the largest rally in decades of the far right. But in murdering Heather Heyer, they triggered a backlash that was seized by the revolutionary left. Comrades mobilized all over the US to prevent similar far-right rallies in the weeks after. The far-left was able to call for mass demonstrations which were able to outnumber fascists, humiliate them, and sent them into hiding until the start of the pandemic.
This is the key lesson to take away: movements are about morale, so we need to find ways to unify the masses to demoralize them.
This is a double-edged sword because it can be applied to socialism and fascism. The DC riot was a morale-boosting victory for the fascists, even if some politicians and capitalists are distancing themselves from it. Seizing the Capitol Building, even if it was mainly as theater, is a trophy that the far-right can wave in the air and use to recruit new volunteers.
The demoralization that the left can feel from this has to be taken seriously, especially among People of Color (POC). What POC witnessed was armed racists acting with impunity. There is a heightened sense of fear that those same extremists may be in their workplaces, may wander into their neighborhoods, etc. There is a heightened fear that the cops that walk their block might be fascist members or sympathizers as well. If we do not provide meaningful steps to build anti-fascist organizing, then POC will feel abandoned by the left.
But if we can prove that we are willing to mobilize mass actions against the far-right, as well as take practical steps like forming anti-fascist rapid response networks, track their organizational events and members, organize counter-demonstrations, etc: then we can inspire our members and the masses to trust us. We can inspire POC to trust and join us. In proving we have the strength and courage to take on the fascists, we also prepare ourselves to take on the capitalist class and the state. If we can learn how to clear the fascists from the path to winning reforms, we also clear the road to socialist revolution.
- Fascism: What it is and how to fight it by Leon Trotsky
- The Struggle Against Fascism by Clara Zetkin
- Snatching Victory by Jasson Perez
- The urgency of anti-fascism by Adam Turl
- 1.6.21: This is America by Hakan Yilmaz and Andy Sernatinger
- The Capitol Rioter’s Aren’t Like Other Extremists by Robert A Pape and Keven Ruby