U.S. capitalism on the move against civil liberties


Under the cover of the right-wing “Stop the Steal” protests on Jan. 6, state governments are moving quickly to write new and expand existing anti-protest laws. The sharp end of these laws is baldly pointed at the left-wing and workers’ movements and based more than anything on deflating the massive Justice for George Floyd movement that exploded onto the streets last summer.

The state is an instrument of class rule. Its purpose is to enforce the law and order of the ruling class. In the United States, and virtually everywhere else, that is the rule of capitalists. While the U.S. state carries out repression, except for extraordinary situations of crisis, it depends on the consent of working and oppressed people in the limited sense of representative democracy. The mechanism for exploitation under a capitalist democracy means continuing to maintain the consent of those being exploited. This means maintaining an illusion and expectation of basic democratic rights like free speech and freedom of assembly. At the same time, the ruling class wants to demobilize and defang political opposition such as social justice activists.

As the late Trotskyist George Novack pointed out during the peak of McCarthyism in 1953, “Whatever democratic freedoms the American people, the labor movement, and Afro-Americans now enjoy, by statute or in practice, were not generously bestowed upon them as free-will offerings from good-hearted possessors of property and power. They have had to be torn from the ruling-class powers through bitter and prolonged battles, and sometimes with arms in hand … And even after such laws are passed through strenuous struggle, unremitting vigilance is required to prevent them from being ignored, violated or restricted by authorities at varying levels.”

Fictitious characters: State repression against the right and the left

Liberal politicians have been exclamatory in their rejection of the “insurrectionary” and “seditious” intent of the fascist and far-right forces who stormed the Capitol building. These pronouncements have the potential to spread confusion among the working class and left. In the first place, attacks on “insurrectionists” is a longstanding means of bringing the law down on the workers’ movement. For example, the construction of National Guard armories in state capitals in the early 1900s was a result of a rising workers, movement and the specter of the Russian revolution in 1917.

Secondly, we have to ask ourselves who is best poised to defeat a rising far-right-wing movement? Is it the liberal “anti-insurrectionist” capitalist politicians or is it a mobilized and fighting working class? Purely legislative methods of turning back fascism have not only failed but historically have been used against the working class. Furthermore, taking the fight against fascism in a legislative direction takes agency away from the working class and the strategy of the united front and mass mobilizations. Instead of movement building, the working class is demobilized and the power of the capitalist state is reinforced.

Why does fascism exist? What purpose does it serve? Fascism is a tool of the capitalist class in crisis. Both liberal and conservative capitalists in the moment of crisis will give power to fascism to save their class interests even though it is not their preferred method to rule. Fascism is like a dog on a leash. At times they give the leash some slack and the dog advances at other times they pull on the leash to rein the dog back in. That is why it is incredibly unlikely to find a scenario in which the government takes formal action against fascist groups. Even if the government does go down that path, the real effect will be to undermine the legal basis for organizing protests in general.

In the words of Leon Trotsky, “The outlawing of fascist groups would inevitably have a fictitious character: as reactionary organizations they can easily change color and adapt themselves to any kind of organizational form since the influential sections of the ruling class and of the governmental apparatus sympathize considerably with them and these sympathies inevitably increase during times of political crisis … [A]ll suppression of political rights and freedom, no matter whom they are directed against in the beginning, in the end inevitably bear down upon the working class, particularly its most advanced elements. That is a law of history.”

Historic laws in motion: The legacy of Martin Dies

During the massive labor upsurge of the 1930s, a reactionary movement of open Nazism grew out of the global crisis of capitalism. In their book “Right Wing Populism in America,” Matthew Lyons and Chip Berlet sketch the emergence of the House Un-American Committee (HUAC) as originating in a liberal strategy to slow the “Brown scare.” Offering a legal “alternative” to independent working-class antifascist mobilizations, the Special Committee on Un-American Activities Authorized to Investigate Nazi Propaganda and Certain Other Propaganda Activities initially targeted the Friends of New Germany and the Silver Shirts. These investigations resulted in the formal dissolution of the Friends of New Germany, which was quickly reconstituted as the American Bund.

Using the apparatus of the Special Committee, HUAC was established in 1938 under the chairmanship of Representative Martin Dies Jr., a Democrat from Texas. Again with the support of “anti-fascist” liberals, the Dies committee quickly got to work. Immediately after being established, the committee hosted witnesses who denounced “no less than 640 organizations, 483 newspapers, and 280 labor unions” for allegedly being “communistic.” The purpose of this testimony was to remove radicals from the labor movement, which had just peaked with the wave of sit-down strikes started in Flint, Mich., as well as to roll back New Deal programs. Under Dies, the HUAC board famously asked the head of the Federal Theaters program if Christopher Marlowe, a 16th-century playwright, was a member of the Communist Party.

Similarly, all over the country, states and localities passed “anti-subversive” laws that drew on “anti-fascist sentiment but primarily targeted the left.” A common theme in defining “subversion” at the time was the unquantifiable quality of “Americanism.” Thus, the real target of these laws were immigrants, leftists, and people opposed to U.S. intervention in World War II. These molecular and parliamentary developments culminated with the signing of the Alien Registration Act, more popularly known as the Smith Act, in 1940. That act was used to surveil millions of immigrant workers and to stoke pro-war sentiment. As will be discussed below, a main feature of the Smith Act was to give broad justification to repress socialist activists.

The text of the Smith Act threatened with financial and legal charges: “Whoever knowingly or willfully advocates, abets, advises, or teaches the duty, necessity, desirability, or propriety of overthrowing or destroying the government of the United States, [as well as] Whoever, with intent to cause the overthrow or destruction of any such government, prints, publishes, edits, issues, circulates, sells, distributes, or publicly displays any written or printed matter advocating, advising, or teaching the duty, necessity, desirability, or propriety of overthrowing or destroying any government in the United States, by force or violence.”

On June 22, 1941, the same day that the Nazi Army invaded the USSR, 23 leaders of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) were arrested on a range of charges connected with opposing U.S. entrance into World War II and supporting worldwide socialist revolution. These charges, the first arrests under the Smith Act, were a multi-sided attack from the Roosevelt administration and the trade-union bureaucracy on not only the SWP but the whole movement of the industrial working class.

For seven years, starting with the great strike wave of 1934, the SWP had led one of the most dynamic workers’ movements through their leadership of the Teamsters in Minneapolis. They presented a significant threat to the capitalists’ ability to wage war unopposed. It would be SWP members in the army who played a role at the end of World War II in organizing soldiers to demand their demobilization and return home. The defendants were sentenced on Dec. 8, 1941, the day after Pearl Harbor. They thought they were going to be hanged.

While HUAC did investigate far-right groups, as Lyons and Berlet point out, this was done to garner liberal support for a generalized attack on civil liberties while also building a narrative of “foreign,” rather than “American,” hard-rightists. The former were to be opposed and the latter were to be sitting on the HUAC panel. Investigations carried out on the Bund in 1939 and the Klan in 1942 helped to justify the continued existence of the committee. In reality, out of over 50 rightists detained for various sedition charges in the early 1940s, only one, George W Christians, was arrested. The rest of the charges were either thrown out due to mistrial (United States v. McWilliams) or acquittal upon appeal (“Mankind United”). Dies himself implored the Imperial Wizard of the KKK, James Colescott, to lead the group “back to the original objectives of the Klan.”

One concrete hold-over from this time is the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA). Signed into law in 1938, it has seen a large uptick in relevant cases in recent years. FARA is a purposefully vague piece of legislation crafted to be used to carry out witch-hunts. The original purpose was sold as a more “democratic” means of controlling political opposition than outright suppression. The main thrust of FARA is to force any person or organization who engages with a “foreign principal” to report a number of highly invasive pieces of information to the federal government and announce “conspicuously” that they are acting as a “foreign agent” or face a fine.

In 2018, four environmental non-profits were forced to register with FARA, basically on the grounds of having met people from different countries. According to an article in the Duke Law Review, “The primary piece of evidence against [Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc. (NRDC)] supporting its need to register was that it had been more critical of the U.S.’s environmental policy than China’s.” Both major U.S. parties have been quick to use FARA to persecute activists and make political gains against their opponents, but Biden specifically is expected to greatly expand FARA’s use under the guise of anti-corruption measures.

The Stalinist Communist Party of the United States of America supported the initial prosecutions and laws by calling for the harshest possible sentences for the Nazi-aligned movements. In an opportunistic move, the CPUSA also abandoned its own historic strategy of non-partisan labor defense. The CPUSA applauded the arrest and conviction of Socialist Workers Party members because the Stalinists supported the U.S. entry into World War II as an “ally” to the Soviet Union. It was also a convenient way to put the brakes on a political and trade-union opponent. Labor militancy was a real threat to the success of the war mobilization. On the orders of Stalin, the CPUSA collaborated fully with the U.S. government by using its supporters in the union leadership to make and enforce no-strike pledges.

The net effect of these maneuvers was to strengthen the state, demobilize would-be working-class defenders of antiwar activists, and obscure how to really fight fascism. Ultimately, the CP’s abdication of defending class-struggle martyrs left the party open to severe state repression after the war. The Communist Party was virtually forced underground during the reign of McCarthy. Due to its class-collaborationist strategy, initial support for the Smith Act witch-hunts, and general sectarianism, they were isolated and hampered in building a political defense within the larger working-class movement.

Capitol riots and state repression today

In the wake of the U.S. and state Capitol riots on Jan. 6, the liberal and business press quickly went into motion denouncing the attack on bourgeois democracy. Those demonstrations were a conscious attempt by the far right to flex its muscles and create a spectacle to foster recruitment down the road. While the protests themselves were nurtured on longstanding racist notions of Black voter fraud, they did not seriously threaten the bourgeois state. All the same, in the big liberal papers the axis of discussion immediately began to revolve around supporting the capitalist state and opposing people who would want to dismantle it. Big corporations instinctually sensed the threat to social stability represented by potential clashes in the streets and moved to temporarily isolate the more activist elements of Trump supporters in Congress and in the right-wing rank and file.

Virtually the entire Democratic Party has been focused on opposing “insurrection,” “sedition,” and anti-American behavior in an uproar that, when thought of alongside the hysteria over Russian influence on U.S. politics, has unnerving similarities with initial “anti-fascist” justifications for anti-Communist, anti-Black, and other witch hunts of the 1930s and ’40s. There will likely be a few serious prosecutions that stick against those who participated in the invasion of the U.S. Capitol, but the lasting consequence threatens to be bipartisan attempts to roll back basic civil liberties.

As an example of the permeation of this type of thinking into the reformist left, the Democrat and Democratic Socialist of America member, Representative Cori Bush, proposed legislation to investigate pro-Trump legislatures based on this framework of legitimizing U.S. democracy. That proposed legislation, broadly supported by the Democratic Socialists of America, calls for persecuting the rightists on the grounds that “the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution posits that no individual can serve in the House of Representatives who has engaged in disloyalty or sedition against the United States … [and must] be dedicated to the United States, the Constitution of the United States, the Rules of the House of Representatives, and upholding the oath of office.”

It should now be obvious that Bush’s legislation, if adopted, could easily be used to red bait and witch hunt independent working-class candidates who win legislative positions in the coming period. An elected member of a revolutionary socialist party is a partisan of class struggle who fights for a revolutionary program.  Any worthwhile revolutionary program puts forward the conclusion that the capitalist government of the United States must be replaced with a workers’ state. Even with formal legality, anti-democratic ballot access laws make running working-class independent campaigns very difficult.

In a broader sense, state and local governments are using the Capitol riots as a means of proposing anti-protest laws meant to stop another upsurge like that of the summer of 2020. The Intercept reports that nine states have introduced 14 anti-protest bills since Jan. 6. While right-wing protests are the touchstone justifications for these bills, in reality they are aimed against the movements for social justice. This is very clear in Florida, where the docket of legislation has been waiting for its moment since September.

The 14 new and extensive pieces of legislation introduced since Jan. 6 come in the context of a rash of new anti-protest laws over the last five years. In reaction to the massively popular NoDAPL protests and Black Lives Matter movement, at least 162 bills have been introduced in 43 states since 2016. Effects of the 26 laws that passed in that time include increased charges for sabotaging pipeline construction, putting graffiti on racist monuments, participating in political encampments, and blocking traffic. There has also been a slew of so-called anti-riot legislative acts that are so broadly defined that they include even peaceful protest. Laws introduced this year in New Hampshire, Missouri, Mississippi, Indiana, and Florida create new legal protections for people who use violence against protesters, up to and including deadly force.

Fight fascism, protect civil rights, build the workers movement!

The crises of capitalism will not subside under the new Democratic-controlled federal government. Capital is politically organized at every level to continue suppressing democratic rights from above, while proto-fascist mobilizations against social justice movements will continue from “below.” The working class is the only force that can combat this two-sided threat to political freedoms, public health, and civil rights.

A Program of Action to Fight Fascism

Fascism is only truly defeated when the capitalist state is smashed everywhere and working people rule in their own name. In the meantime, the burning task for revolutionaries is to win over the working class to a program of action that actually presents a solution to the crises for all of the people being ground up by the big banks and corporations. The purpose of such a program is not to present reforms that are “amenable” to capitalism but rather to signify what is possible in a rationally organized society. Only by mobilizing and organizing our class for bold struggles that provide a real vision of a different future than that provided by capitalist decay can we really win people over from the “populist” right.

At the same time, counter-mobilizations against the fascists’ attempts to hold meetings, demonstrate, or harass working-class and BIPOC communities are a necessity. Such counter-mobilizations are an opportunity to build mass planning meetings with open discussions on strategy and tactics. Labor, community, and civil rights groups can move together to show the fascists they are not welcome while not giving an inch of justification for the capitalist state to extend its repressive capacity.

Good historic examples of successful counter-mobilizations include the tens of thousands organized against the far right in Boston, San Francisco, and across the country after the 2017 “Unite the Right” demonstration in Charlottesville, Va., and the 20,000 labor, Jewish, and community activists mobilized against an open meeting of the American Bund at Madison Square Garden in 1939.

Mass Mobilization to Defend Civil Rights

During the George Floyd upsurge, over 10,000 activists were arrested. While many of the charges were dropped, there still remain a number of protesters facing fines and potential jail time. Each of these cases is an important opportunity to build non-sectarian broad defense coalitions to drop all charges. The state is testing its ability to arrest militants without opposition. Every successful defense campaign will give workers and oppressed people more confidence as well as push the unions to become involved with this sort of work. Similarly, all organizations with a stake in defending democratic rights must be brought into the streets against new repressive laws and expansions of existing ones. Freedom of speech, assembly, and protest are victories from hard-fought and often bloody conflicts. At the same time, the law is only one side of the class struggle. The actual balance of forces is also a determining factor in the ability to demonstrate. If there is a high level of organization and solidarity between groups on a class basis, the state will have a more difficult time isolating and repressing different parts of the movement.

Fight Capitalism, Build the Labor Party

Street mobilizations and united front campaigns are absolute necessities to increase the experience with and capacity for struggle of working, unemployed, and oppressed peoples. At the same time, without an independent political apparatus, the fights will remain disconnected and temporary.

The Democratic Party has maintained its chokehold on the movements for social and economic justice. Today’s most pressing task is for working people to break with that party of oppression and strike out on their own politically and organizationally. Amidst a wave of rank-and-file organizing against the pandemic, Black liberation struggle, and an increasing number of youth and people of color in basic industry, the unions are in a position to launch a real fightback against economic and political attacks from the bosses. Such a fight could be organized through a national all-union congress open to working and unemployed people regardless of immigration status to constitute an independent political organization for working people.

Without delay, socialist and labor organizations can reject the notions of “lesser-evilism” and devote time to running class independent electoral campaigns of their own. Campaigns of this type can not only explicitly oppose the capitalists’ program with that of the working class, but also give broad legal protection and publicity for socialist groups.

Taken all together, the combination of the above orientations points directly to the immediate need to forge a revolutionary party that can provide leadership and direction for the mass movements of today.

The capitalist state will continue to foster the conditions of hopelessness that give birth to fascism while increasingly repressing those elements fighting for a future of hope. Only by bringing the fights for Black liberation, Indigenous self-determination, and workers’ power to their conclusion can humanity begin to solve the endless problems that capitalism has created. Only a socialist order, based on centralized planning and workers’ control of production, can move beyond the narrow limits imposed by class society.

Illustration by General Strike Graphics 

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