A pernicious weed has broken through the cracks of the decaying American Empire. Nourished by the chauvinist rhetoric of Donald Trump’s administration and under cover of the “alt-right” umbrella, fascists are mobilizing in increasing numbers. The “Unite the Right” provocation in Charlottesville, Virginia on 11-12 August 2017 – in which a murderous neo-Nazi ploughed his car into a crowd of anti-racists, killing Industrial Workers of the World supporter Heather Heyer and sending 19 others to hospital – should be a wake-up call for leftists, trade unionists, blacks, immigrants and all the oppressed. The rising self-confidence and tactical sophistication of the far-right displayed in Charlottesville were reflected in the successful collaboration between traditional fascist and white supremacist formations, such as the Ku Klux Klan and National Socialist Movement, and newer organizations, including “Vanguard America, Identity Evropa, the Traditionalist Workers Party and True Cascadia, which have seen their numbers expand dramatically in the past year” (www.propublica.org, 13 August).
The alt-right is made up of this overtly fascist core as well as broader layers of racist, xenophobic and misogynistic garbage. It particularly seeks to recruit embittered young white men by telling them that the instability and precarity of their lives are somehow due to perceived attacks on “men’s rights,” Euro-Christian “civilization” and “white culture” by feminists and leftists, and to liberal university administrators and corrupt Democratic politicians coddling blacks, women and illegal immigrants. Alt-right leaders have effectively used social media and various other online platforms to spread their reactionary, pseudo-intellectual drivel to the gullible, convincing them they have been “red pilled” (i.e., made to see reality).
Fascist movements are essentially extra-parliamentary mobilizations of enraged, downwardly mobile petty-bourgeois elements (e.g., small business owners, managers and the self-employed), as well as the lumpenproletariat (i.e., the permanently unemployed, small-fry criminals and other socially marginal layers). Cops and military personnel are also often key constituencies. While street thuggery and physical attacks on leftists, organized workers and targeted minorities are the glue that cohere fascist organizations, there is also an ideological overlay, usually characterized by demagogic ultra-nationalism and defense of “the little guy.” The political differences among competing fascist groups largely concern which powerless minorities to scapegoat and the most effective strategies for terrorizing them.
Fascism first emerged in Western Europe following World War I, with capitalism in acute crisis and parliamentary politics discredited and unable to address the anxiety of the frantic petty bourgeoisie. Leon Trotsky, one of the central figures of the October Revolution of 1917, observed that if a genuine communist party is “the party of revolutionary hope, then fascism, as a mass movement, is the party of counterrevolutionary despair. When revolutionary hope embraces the whole proletarian mass, it inevitably pulls behind it on the road of revolution considerable and growing sections of the petty bourgeoisie” (“The Turn in the Communist International and the German Situation,” September 1930 [emphasis in original]). Following WWI, revolutionary opportunities developed in both Italy and Germany, but the proletariat failed to seize power due to the political immaturity of the communist party.
In Italy, the fascist movement was founded by former syndicalists and socialists who decisively broke from internationalism to promote nationalism and territorial expansion. In 1922, Benito Mussolini and his National Fascist Party led a march on Rome with their paramilitary squadristi thugs (or blackshirts), which resulted in them taking the reins of state power. In Germany, the National Socialist (aka Nazi) Party of Adolf Hitler and its Sturmabteilung (or brownshirts) steadily built support by attacking trade-unionists, leftists, Jews and other minorities before taking power in January 1933. In both cases the fascist movements were supported by big business interests that saw them as a potent weapon against organized labor and as a means of decapitating the mass parties of the left (see Daniel Guerin, Fascism and Big Business).
Today the American ruling class is not facing serious threats from either the unions or an insurgent revolutionary left. While some rightist groupings are backed by wealthy patrons, the bourgeoisie, on the whole, has no need for extra-legal paramilitaries. Yet the decay of American imperialism, and the obscene concentration of wealth in the hands of a tiny number of billionaires, has so rotted the foundations of bourgeois democracy that the traditional two-party system has largely lost its veneer of legitimacy and is widely (and correctly) seen as a rigged game. The 2016 presidential campaign set a new low, as a buffoonish reality TV show capitalist tycoon got elected by posing as a “populist” champion of millions of desperate blue-collar workers. Trump’s nationalist rhetoric, which has fanned the flames of the alt-right, is simply a more robust expression of the U.S. bourgeoisie’s desire to arrest American imperialism’s declining status as global hegemon. If the powerful multi-racial working class does begin to raise its head in a revival of militant trade-union and socialist activism, as the country teeters on the brink of a very serious economic contraction, Wall Street may see the need for fascist auxiliaries after all.
After taking power, Hitler astutely observed: “Only one thing could have broken our movement – if the adversary had understood its principle and from the first day had smashed with extreme brutality the nucleus of our new movement” (cited in Robin Blick, Fascism in Germany: How Hitler Destroyed the World’s Most Powerful Labour Movement, 1975). Nazi Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels made a similar point: “If the enemy had known how weak we were, it would probably have reduced us to jelly. It would have crushed in blood the very beginning of our work” (Ibid.).
The liberal-reformist strategy of relying on the capitalist state to squash or ban the far right is guaranteed to fail, and only strengthens the government’s repressive powers against the left. Fascism is an insurance policy for capitalism – something to be used in case of emergency when the usual methods of social control and bourgeois legality are no longer effective. It is not a set of ideas to be debated but a deadly menace to working people and the oppressed that must be ruthlessly crushed through the mass mobilization of its intended victims. As Trotsky explained in Whither France? in 1934:
“Fascism finds unconscious helpers in all those who say that the ‘physical struggle’ is impermissible or hopeless, and demand of [French Prime Minister Gaston] Doumergue the disarmament of his fascist guard. Nothing is so dangerous for the proletariat, especially in the present situation, as the sugared poison of false hopes. Nothing increases the insolence of the fascists so much as ‘flabby pacifism’ on the part of the workers organizations. Nothing so destroys the confidence of the middle classes in the working class as temporizing, passivity, and the absence of the will to struggle.”
The Nazis overcame the powerful German workers’ movement so easily because it was deeply divided internally. The Communist Party (KPD), following instructions from the Soviet bureaucracy headed by Joseph Stalin, refused to cooperate with the Social Democratic Party (SPD) in any joint action against the Nazis. Denouncing the social democrats as “social fascists,” KPD leader Ernst Thälmann suggested that a Nazi government would soon discredit itself and open the door for the Communists to take over – “After Hitler, our turn!” was his infamous slogan (cited in C.L.R. James, World Revolution 1917-1936: The Rise and Fall of the Communist International, 1937).
Counterposed to the suicidal sectarianism of the KDP, the International Left Opposition, led by Trotsky, advocated the policy of the “united front”: while maintaining organizational and political independence, revolutionaries propose joint militant action against the fascists:
“No common platform with the Social Democracy, or with the leaders of the German trade unions, no common publications, banners, placards! March separately, but strike together! Agree only how to strike, whom to strike, and when to strike! Such an agreement can be concluded even with the devil himself, with his grandmother, and even with Noske and Grezesinsky [notorious SPD leaders who ordered violence against the communists]. On one condition, not to bind one’s hands.”
—Trotsky, “For a Workers’ United Front Against Fascism,” December 1931
Trotsky argued that if the SPD leaders agreed to work together with the KPD to crush the fascist threat, then the working class and oppressed would win a major victory; if they refused to cooperate, they would expose their political bankruptcy to their followers and thereby hasten both their own demise and the growth of the communist movement.
Today we are seeing the ominous emergence of the nucleus of a new, more sophisticated fascist movement in the U.S. The far right consider their Charlottesville mobilization to have been a big success, and America’s long-time leading white supremacist, David Duke, correctly read Trump’s stubborn insistence on condemning “both sides” in the confrontation as a backhanded expression of solidarity with the alt-right, including its fascist elements.
History shows that the only way to effectively deal with this threat is by inflicting a series of humiliating and decisive defeats on the fascists before they are able to grow. Fascist movements recruit on the basis of displaying “strength” and being tough. They are indifferent to denunciations from the media, the clergy or bourgeois politicians. Candlelight vigils, teach-ins and prayer services cannot be effective – what is necessary is militant united-front action by the labor movement, the organizations of the oppressed and all other potential victims of the fascists. We stand in solidarity with all those in Charlottesville, and around the world, who put themselves at risk in order to actively prevent fascists from assembling, marching or spewing their poisonous filth. Such actions do not depend on all participants agreeing on other political questions – the essential requirement is a willingness to take active measures to drive the white supremacists, the KKK, the Nazis and any other fascist vermin back into their ratholes.
Organized labor, due to its strategic social and economic power, has a particularly vital role to play in smashing the fascists. That is why the main obstacle to effective united-front mobilizing is the trade-union bureaucracy, a privileged layer that uses its position of power within the labor movement to promote nationalism, protectionism and support for the capitalist Democratic Party. But there are positive examples to draw on. Local 10 of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) in Oakland, California, is leading the way with its decision to stop work and mobilize to shut down a fascist rally in San Francisco’s Crissy Field on 26 August. The resolution launching the ILWU’s anti-fascist action notes:
“ILWU Local 10 has a long and proud history of standing up against racism, fascism and bigotry and using our union power to do so; on May Day 2015 we shut down Bay Area ports and marched followed by thousands to Oscar Grant Plaza demanding an end to police terror against African Americans and others; the San Francisco Bay Area is a union stronghold and we will not allow labor-hating white supremacists to bring their lynch mob terror here.
“Therefore, ILWU Local 10 in the best tradition of our union that fought these rightwingers in the Big Strike of 1934, will not work on that day and instead march to Crissy Field to stop the racist, fascist intimidation in our hometown and invite all unions and antiracist and antifascist organizations to join us defending unions, racial minorities, immigrants, LGBTQ people, women and all the oppressed.”
Thanks to the work of militant trade unionists over many decades, Local 10 not only shut down the Bay Area ports on May Day 2015 to defend black victims of racist cop violence, it has initiated other exemplary port shutdowns to demand the freedom of former Black Panther Mumia Abu-Jamal and an end to the imperialist occupation of Iraq (see “Down with Racist Police Terror!,” 1917 No.37 and “Labor Action to Fight Racist Cop Terror!,” 1917 No.38).
The resurgence of the American far-right is a byproduct of capitalist decay in the imperialist epoch. Only the reorganization of the economy on socialist-egalitarian lines will eliminate the conditions that breed fascism. As history demonstrates, socialism will not come about through parliamentary activity or through the spontaneous action of the masses. Rather, it requires a qualitative break with the old institutions of capitalist rule and the creation of a new state power rooted in the organizations of the working class. To achieve workers’ power requires revolutionary leadership. One hundred years ago, the Bolshevik Party of Lenin and Trotsky led the working class of Russia in sweeping away capitalism. Today, as we seek to build a movement that can once again open the road to socialist transformation on a global scale, we must look to the lessons of October 1917.