Written by Carlos Jara
On the surface, panicking about impending fascism in our current political climate is reasonable. Like Mussolini and Hitler, Donald Trump has relied on the rhetoric of nationalism and racism to embolden his base. Internment camps for undocumented immigrants, already a moral travesty to begin with, increasingly resemble Nazi concentration camps with every passing day. Trump’s reelection campaign has shown a total contempt for democracy, and he has repeatedly stated that he is likely to ignore the results in the event that he loses the vote. And perhaps most importantly, right-wing terrorists have steadily increased their attacks against protestors, people of color, Jews and leftists. Isn’t that basically fascism already?
But fascism is more than these components. In the words of Nahuel Moreno, fascism is a regime (that is to say, an arrangement of political institutions and norms) that enacts blanket repression against the working class using the methods of civil war. In doing so, it also destroys the political freedoms and institutions of liberal bourgeois democracy. In practice, this means attacking organizing spaces and arresting or executing enemies of the regime with total impunity. In order to do this, fascism relies on a militant and organized movement of its own, whose ranks are filled by reactionary sections of the petit bourgeoisie and working class. The implications of fascism for socialists, or any other group interested in anticapitalist or progressive politics, are grave: to prepare for fascism is to prepare to go underground, dissolving our current organizations and abandoning our methods of organizing openly in favor of clandestine operations. If fascism is truly around the corner, taking such steps is necessary for our very survival. Are we going to be able to continue into 2021 without worrying that our meetings or protests will end with mass executions? Many politicians in Trump’s camp are clearly amenable to fascism, but do they actually have the means to implement it? Our ability to effectively organize is dependent on properly understanding what threats we face.
The claim that Trump is on the cusp of bringing fascism wavers when we look at the forces at his disposal. The Proud Boys may be standing back and by, but they are a far cry from the Brown, Black or Blue shirts of interwar Germany, Italy or Portugal. A Proud Boys rally in Philadelphia in late September only a handful of reactionaries who were outnumbered by several hundred counter protestors. Another rally about a week later in Portland that was supposed to host 20,000 far-right attendees instead drew only a few hundred wannabe fascists and 1500 counter protestors. The Nazi Party spent decades growing its forces by engaging in street fighting and electoral campaigns before ultimately gaining power. The US has the embryos of fascist organizations, but at this time the far-right’s means of operation are more similar to a network of terrorist cells than a reactionary vanguard capable of imposing fascism. The violence committed by these reactionaries is not something that we should ignore, and will be addressed later in this article, but if fascism is a wolf pack at our door, the current level of organization that we’re seeing from the far right is a nest of wasps.
But what about the state itself? Could Trump rely on the military to crush liberal democracy? The events of this past summer suggest that the military is not going to be an enthusiastic supporter of any attempt by the Trump administration to smash its opposition. Trump already tried to enlist the military to carry out his domestic bidding in response to anti-police protests, an order which was refused even by the military’s leadership, which could plausibly have been expected to be sympathetic to a fascist turn on the basis of shared class interests. While there are undoubtedly individual soldiers or officers who may be happy to lend their jackboots to a fascist coup, in the event of a crisis it currently looks more likely that the military would intercede to depose Trump and “protect the Constitution” than to support his rule.
A danger of overstating the threat of fascism is that it obscures the atrocities committed under the pretenses of liberal democracy. The “democratic republic” of the United States has been more than happy to throw ethnic minorities in concentration camps, commit genocide against indigenous peoples, ban dissent, outlaw communist parties, imprison and execute leftists, and engage in imperialism abroad, all without once skipping an election. The United States is hardly unique in this regard: bourgeois democracies from Canada to India have been happy to follow suit. Manipulating, ignoring or canceling elections is also well within the realm of bourgeois liberal governance. Rigged elections in Mexico and Honduras did not transform the regimes of those countries from bourgeois republics to fascist dictatorships. Inasmuch as we need to be ready to fight attacks against the working class’s ability to at least symbolically participate in politics through elections, we need to remain sober about the conditions ahead of us.
Focusing on the impending fascism of a second Trump term ignores that some of the most egregious incursions against political freedoms of the past year have been instituted by Democrats, the party which liberals claim will protect us from fascism. When threatened with mass protests against racism over the summer, Democrats at the local and state level imposed harsh curfews, underwrote police brutality against protestors, and even called in the National Guard in a few cases. Breonna Taylor’s murder in a no-knock raid, an instance of racist callousness and impunity whose methods could easily be repeated to carry out a politically-motivated assassination, occurred in a city controlled by Democrats in a state with a Democrat governor. The worst of American authoritarianism already has the tacit support of the Democratic Party; an analysis that emphasizes the impending threat of Trumpian fascism obscures this critical detail. The clashes of this past summer also provide a lesson of hope for antifascists in the US: attempts to essentially impose martial law only emboldened the protest movement, and were quickly repealed to keep the situation from spiraling out of hand. Even without an organized antifascist front, attempts to repeal civil liberties will be met with mass resistance. As the capitalist system becomes increasingly threatened by the acceleration of climate change, we can expect capitalism’s liberal defenders to be more and more willing to attack our political and civil liberties. Assessing that Trump is not going to bring fascism to the US does not absolve us of our need to organize the defense of our class against coming attacks, but it informs our defense strategy. Rather than rushing to build a united front with liberals against the threat of “fascism”, whose main tactic is to vote for the very same people that have been greenlighting oppression against us, we need to be building our ability to fight as a political force independent from the liberal ruling class.
So where does this leave us? COVID has ravaged the United States and left the economic prospects of the working class in shambles, even as corporations such as Amazon are marking record profits. We desperately need radical reforms: rent amnesty, income guarantees, freezes on layoffs, and more. These aren’t just socialist pipe dreams; despite how unlikely it is for such reforms to pass through Congress, these demands constitute the bare minimum for survival for vast swathes of the population. The same is true for antiracist and environmentalist demands: without them, people will die. Such demands form part of a transitional program: as we fight for every milestone along the way to the full implementation of these demands, we will win incremental victories that materially benefit the working class, while also providing a concrete lesson that the full vision of a society where human needs are properly addressed remains outside of the confines of capitalism.
It is not enough to just defeat Trump and stop our society’s reactionary backslide, we need to take concrete steps forward, and voting for Democrats will not accomplish this. We need to build our capacity to wield political power as a class, which means working to increase the size and militancy of working class movement, building strike-ready unions, community organizing groups that are willing to take direct action and a socialist party that can form connections across these fronts and unite them to challenge capitalism. Democrats and Republicans alike have been thoroughly discredited through their inability to pass even the most meager remedies to the COVID-19 pandemic. Now is the time for us to be on the attack, drawing new supporters among those disaffected by the politics of the status quo. It is not enough for leftists to reduce our political organizing to anti-fascism, particularly an anti-fascism that follows the lead of the Democratic party in identifying Trump and the GOP as the sole agents of right wing authoritarianism. We need to promote a proactive political vision built on a class-independent basis, without fear that this will “weaken” the Democratic Party’s ability to “fight” against the Republicans. The fight for reforms such as universal healthcare and an end to fossil fuel extraction, let alone actual socialist revolution, begins with building a political bastion of power for the working class, not with shoring up a Democratic Party that has no interest in implementing any of these policies.
Despite the shortcomings of bourgeois democracy, in the event that the current administration does try to delay or derail elections, we need to play an enthusiastic role in mass demonstrations against such actions. This is necessary for two reasons: the first is that as a matter of principle, we need to fight for all expansions of political franchise for the working class and against any attacks that threaten it. To ignore an antidemocratic maneuvers would be to abdicate our claim to being the defenders of democracy to liberal leaders (or even worse, a military bureaucracy) that have no interest in doing anything beyond protecting the status quo. In the process, we would be giving up the moral authority to immediately demand reforms as part of the pro-democracy movement in the wake of the anti-democratic challenges. Secondly, the act of participating in mass demonstrations against an anti-democratic maneuvering is an experience that dramatically increases the working class’s consciousness of its own power: an abuse of power stopped in the streets or due to mass strikes draws a sharp contrast between the ineffectiveness of symbolic action by liberal politicians in government and the power of the militant working class to bring a government to its knees. Even if pro-democracy actions are ultimately unsuccessful, attacks against basic democracy inspire militant mass demonstrations on an unprecedented scale that allow for a glimpse at a world and a form of political participation far outside the bourgeois norm, a glimpse that leaves people hungry for more.
As mentioned earlier, just because capital-F Fascism isn’t lying in wait for us doesn’t mean that we aren’t faced with threats of violence, both from far-right vigilantes and from the police. We need to take steps to defend ourselves, but we need to do so in a manner that corresponds both to the threats that we face and the resources at our disposal. Defending protests, strikes and meeting spaces means self-defense on a mass scale, the formation of workers’ militias in our organizing spaces. Critically, these formations need to be an organic outgrowth of our organizing work: the goal is not to create a Marxist paramilitary that can go around to “protect” various groups or mount attacks against fascists and the police. Rather, we need to be pushing for our unions and activist groups to take steps to ensure their own security, starting small and steadily building our confidence. The beginnings of such militias can be modest: perimeter security at a protest that can isolate potential threats from the rest of the crowd, or at least warn and evacuate protestors in the event that there’s a threat that they are not ready to handle. As the level of cohesion in these groups increases and as threats evolve, the militia will be able to prepare for more significant confrontations. These groups must be organized to be democratically responsive to the groups that they are formed out of, and in a manner that is cognizant of structural inequalities in people’s ability and willingness to participate in such a militia. This model of organization is our socialist answer to the question of policing: a community-based, democratic body that can protect its community against violence and provide basic aid in crises. The successful organization of these self-defense groups will play a decisive role in maintaining mass participation in protests that would otherwise be threatened by vigilantes and police.
Liberal Capitalism, Threat of Fascism?
Written by Carlos Jara