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The urgency of anti-fascism

A response to David Renton

Editors' Note: The following article was written prior to David Renton's October 1st piece in Truthout. Especially given the importance of these issues, the author and editors look forward to further comradely exchanges as the conditions—and our arguments—further develop.

We all face a growing danger — workers, people of color, queer folks, women, immigrants, socialists and left-anarchists, and all others who do not fit into the white nationalist “patriotic” narrative. This is not hyperbole or fear mongering. It is becoming a fact of “American” life. Recognizing this does not mean running back to the skeletal bosom of U.S. liberalism. In fact, it means the opposite.

For this reason, I took issue with some of David Renton’s recent formulations around Donald Trump and the question of fascism, particularly in his blog post, “On the limits of liberal anti-fascism.” Renton has since responded with a more nuanced view that I appreciate, although one that still seems somewhat distanced from the immediacy of the threat. Here I will unpack some of this disagreement, and sketch out a case for anti-fascist urgency.

I want to emphasize, at the same time, my complete agreement with the conclusion of Renton’s latter blog post: “If I was in the States I’d be thinking – is there an anti-fascist coalition in my city? What have I done to build it?”

Slouching Toward Fascism

“On the limits of liberal anti-fascism,” seems to present too much of a focus on the definition of historic fascism, rather than seeing it as a dynamic within capitalism, a possible tendency born of crisis.

The difference between fascism and “normal” liberal and conservative politics isn’t simply quantitative—Trump deported less people than Obama, Trump hasn’t built that much wall, etc.—it is qualitative. It is that fascism reconciles (or tries to reconcile), temporarily, in the interests of capital, contradictions that can’t be resolved by the normal functioning of bourgeois democracy. It achieves this, in part, by reactionary overhauls to the capitalist state in tandem with a mutually-reinforcing, reactionary mass movement (largely made up of the disaffected middle-class).

Of course, Modi in India, Trump in the United States, Bolsonaro in Brazil, have not reprised the horrors of German Nazism or Italian fascism at that same scale. But they are part of a process creating a logic, a movement, and a type of state tending in a fascist direction. Indeed, Renton has argued for a similar understanding of the contemporary far-right as a process. Perhaps we disagree on the state of its development and the urgency of our response. Moreover, the (proto-)fascist threat is much more developed in the U.S. than in the UK.

Part of the problem may be an overemphasis on the German model of fascism: Nazism. Fascism, as a reactionary and nationalist movement, manifests differently in different countries, and differently in relationship to the various crises that help spawn it. The goals of the current “American” (proto-)fascists are somewhat different than that of Nazism in its heyday. The current “alt-right” has incorporated more European fascist ideas, but U.S. fascism more often appeals to “liberty” and “freedom.” The “American” fascist channels the “liberty” of the plantation owners and slave merchants, and the “freedom” of the thieves who absconded with Native land.

Far right leaders are on the rise internationally: (from left) Bolsonaro of Brazil, Trump of the United States, Modi of India.

For fascism to become a contender for “alternative” rule in capitalism, broadly speaking, it has to be conditioned/ formed by:

  • A prolonged crisis not “fixable” by the “normal” means of bourgeois democracy.
  • The organization and formation of frenzied bands, armed street fascists, etc.,—the “human dust.”1—largely but not exclusively drawn from the middle-class.
  • Sections of the state—mostly its armed and repressive sections—provide coordination and cohesion to these masses; provide the supportive fascia.
  • Support from sections of capital itself.

Clearly there is no direct fascist rule (as of yet) in the United States. However, many elements of fascism are rapidly developing (albeit in a particularly “American” idiom):

1. A large potential constituency for fascism has been imbued with an increasingly unhinged and racist conspiratorial worldview, with a significant armed and organized subsection

The scale of this far-right imaginary needs to be reckoned with. Comrades who live outside of the largest cities will have seen it more clearly. Entire populations have been possessed by the latest versions of racist hysteria, fascist replacement theory, and “globalist” (anti-Semitic) conspiracies. Our neighbors no longer believe we are human. This is even more true for populations whose humanity was already suspect in “normal” U.S. politics. Additionally, comrades outside the U.S. need to understand how heavily armed the U.S. population is. Around a third of the population own guns, and there are 120.5 privately-owned guns for every 100 citizens. While some leftists and many “apolitical” workers own guns, the liberal base of the Democratic Party is largely unarmed.

Trumpism has become a mass cultural and political shibboleth for much of the white middle-class and a significant proportion of the white working-class (especially older white workers often outside the cities and more cosmopolitan towns). There is, to be clear, no reasoning or compromising with people that think Trump is saving the U.S. from an international pedophilia ring tied to Black Lives Matter (BLM) or “cultural Marxism.” Such people can only be defeated. Renton acknowledges this dynamic in “But what if it gets worse from here…” — in particular how Trump, unlike previous Republican administrations, fully embraced the radical far right and weaponized it. For example, Trump’s argument that “shadow people … are controlling the streets”, quoted by Renton in “Right Populism or Neofascism?,” Here is the President of the United States fully embracing anti-Semitic conspiracy theory.

Quote from American socialist writer, Upton Sinclair.

2. Conversion of sections of the state

A section of the state has been won over to an increasingly fascist and authoritarian worldview—within Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), Homeland Security, and the local police. Unfortunately, Renton spends less time on this matter. While it is true that Trump “has not purged the state,” he has purged sections of the state (mostly at the top levels) and begun to consolidate power in those areas of the state most loyal to him (in some of its most repressive elements). This helps explain why the Justice Department has floated the idea of sedition charges against BLM activists. Such charges are not unheard of in U.S. history. But it is something of a break from recent decades in which these matters have mostly been left to local attorneys general. The militarization of local police, begun under previous administrations, has accelerated, with increasing (and deadly) coordination between paramilitaries and law enforcement (as seen in Kenosha, Wisconsin). This open and blatant coordination of the police with armed (proto-)fascist bands—many of which overlap in membership with the police—is a grave threat. Similarly, the border patrol has been increasingly politicized.

It is important to note here that fascism is not only about its mass petit-bourgeois movement, it is partly about the decay of the bourgeois state. The U.S. state, after decades of neoliberalism, twenty years of imperial decline, and four years of Trump, is no longer functioning along historic, post-World War II “norms.” A narrative of insidious “threats from without and within” has captured the imagination of its most repressive elements. There is a pattern here of crafted dysfunction and (proto-)fascist police/militia forms beginning to provide a coalescing force—a fascia. More specifically, many state and local governments charged with election oversight are obviously and blatantly corrupt.2 The Trump administration has already taken substantial steps to gut the U.S. Postal Service (needed for mail-in and absentee voting).

3. The active delegitimizing of the 2020 election process

Leading figures in the federal government—including Trump—are floating the idea of not recognizing the results of the 2020 elections. Importantly, this is being done in tandem with the idea that there is a left-globalist-liberal conspiracy to steal the election. Yes, we are Marxists, and we understand bourgeois elections are, in one sense, a sham. Even more so in the U.S. But there is a reason we defend basic democratic norms. If this Rubicon were to be crossed we may be unable to count on any democratic norms. For example, it is very possible that the selective criminalization of critical social media posts could be accelerated. We may see more federal kidnapping of activists, more trumped-up charges facing leftists—as in the recent cases brought against Party of Socialism and Liberation comrades in Colorado, etc. Things that were unthinkable will become increasingly normalized. All this would be done under the cover of emergency. The Trump administration, campaign, and the allied far right are already raising alarm over (make-believe) threats that “BLM Marxists” will attack suburbs and small towns in the event of a Biden victory.

4. An unanswerable crisis for bourgeois politics-as-usual

The liberal and conservative political mainstream has no solution to the crises (economic, health, imperial) that would benefit the majority of petit-bourgeois and working-class people in the U.S. Instead we are offered a national unity government (Biden). This inspires no one because “national unity” is impossible. The social-democratic route (Sanders, etc.) to ameliorating these crises—however viable—was eliminated by the Democratic Party. That leaves the petit-bourgeois solution, the historic base of fascism. Moreover, it is entirely possible that the U.S. bourgeoisie may grow weary of perpetual crises and outsource the state to other forces (as long as capital accumulation and class prerogatives remain intact). Furthermore, sections of the capitalist class itself are moving in a clearly fascist direction, or (as the economic and political descendants of the plantation system and Confederacy) are sympathetic to fascism.3 The liberal—and sometimes left—assumption that “capital doesn’t want Trump” is overstated. In fact, there are sections of capital which have chosen to support Trump, and other proto-fascist politicians. This is not dissimilar to other countries, like Brazil, where ruling class fractions have rallied to the authoritarian leader.

5. Deepening repression

The state under Trump has accelerated and expanded the normalization of repression. Yes, Trump has deported fewer people than Barack Obama. But his administration is also further normalizing assassination of activists and crimes against humanity in immigrant concentration camps. They have already normalized domestic mass casualties. They won millions of people over to the idea that letting 200,000+ people die from COVID 19 was a positive good.

The excuses and apologetics for this mass murder are couched in insane conspiracy theories, deference to the economy, hostility to science, and social darwinism: “Only the weak die. Only the pedophiles die. They would’ve died anyway. The cure is worse than the disease. There is no disease.” In this context, what will another few hundred thousand deaths matter? Millions of people seem to believe that a mythical “Antifa” is pillaging an idyllic countryside. In this context the elimination of free speech for “Antifa” or “BLM Marxists” is seen by a substantial number of people in the U.S. as a positive good. After all, in their view, the homestead and homeland must be protected by any means necessary. Of course it is lunacy. Of course it is the (proto-)fascists who are coming from the suburbs and small towns to terrorize the cities, not vice versa. And of course the core of these beliefs is abject racism. But that doesn’t make it any less of a threat. And it provides the state with mass support for racist and anti-left terror.

Is it Fascism Yet?

As far as historical windows go, Renton is right when he begins to look at the 1920s rather than the 1930s. No historical analogy is perfect. History doesn’t repeat itself—although it tries to. In the 1920s, during the historical development and formation of fascism and fascist organizations, there was a fluidity of militarism and ultra-right nationalism. This was before the fascists gained hegemony. This is a more fruitful time period to look at for our current situation.

We are clearly seeing a movement in that direction. The threat of (proto-)fascist bands—connected to law enforcement, whose politics are amplified by the Trump administration—is real. Emboldened and armed (proto-)fascists have killed protesters in Kenosha, Austin, Omaha, Minneapolis, Indianapolis, Davenport, Bakersfield, Louisville, and beyond. It is rapidly becoming a daily threat and a “normal” feature of protesting against police racism. But it has also become a normal aspect of life for many people outside of the large cities. Fascist posters demanding the death of queer professors appear on a college campus. People asking questions about armed mobs in a town square are threatened. Unexplained deaths of BLM activists accumulate.

The armed bands and (proto-)fascist groups serve a particular role in the formation of the fascia. There is no reason—at present—to think that they will not serve a larger role moving forward. Fascist terror does not—and historically did not—arrive fully grown after taking power. Fascist terror is/ was a key part of the process by which fascism achieved critical mass. The human dust, in tandem with the armed bodies of the state—such as today’s ICE, Border Patrol, police, military—terrorized people and created chaos before they had the strength or capacity to rule.

This violence has three key functions:

  • It terrorizes and demobilizes the Left, the working-class, certain ethnic and religious groups, queer communities, and others.
  • The violence helps the state apparatus justify authoritarian measures to restore order, and the militarization of society: “There is chaos on the streets! Only a madman would defund the police!”
  • It serves an internal function—organizationally and psychologically—for the fascist movement itself. It allows them to grow, to recruit, and to seemingly prove (to themselves and others) their superiority (racial, national, etc.) through violence.

All this allows them to grow and present themselves as a viable alternative to sections of capital and the state. In the process, of course, it accelerates the terror facing Jews, Black and brown persons, immigrants, gay and gender non-conforming people, and so on. And, of course, it cows the Left itself.

This shifts our focus from discussing, “is it fascism?” to asking ourselves, more importantly, “what can be done?”

Trumpism: Continuation and Rupture

Renton is right that the current repression is a continuation. But Trumpism represents something in addition to that—continuation and rupture. Trump is a product of the decayed Washington consensus and the “normal” workings of a racist capitalist empire in decline. But that doesn’t make him a slightly worse Bill Clinton or George W. Bush. The historic fascist dictators were also products of the political failures, crises, and “normal” capitalist oppressions of Italy, Spain, and Germany. But they also represented something else. In my opinion, here is where Renton misses the mark. He argues in “On the limits of liberal anti-fascism:”

If, for example, Trump was about to steal the election … If he was about to show a vastly greater contempt towards American voters than (say) even George Bush in 2000… If he was about to call an army of his supporters onto the streets to invalidate a popular vote, and you could realistically expect the Patriots [to] kill hundreds of people. If the Left was genuinely facing that immediate catastrophe—then an alliance with liberals would make sense, even if it meant biting our collective tongues and keeping silent through a great deal of annoying myth-making.

There are three problems here:

  • This is exactly what is on offer—the potential invalidation of an election and the threat of mass violence: see the Trump response to COVID 19, the administration floating the need to put down an imaginary “armed left insurrection,” the mini-Reichstag fire rumors of “BLM Marxists” and Antifa setting the fires in Oregon, etc. Indeed, although the Bush campaign manipulated electoral norms, the campaign didn’t agitate that a Democratic victory would amount to a sinister conspiracy. Trump and his proxies have repeatedly done so.
  • Regardless of the specific election outcome, the (proto-)fascist threat will consolidate and continue to grow.
  • Just as important, we can’t unite with the liberals and bite our tongues, because we can’t count on the liberals to fight back. And, historically, that strategy has never worked. In Spain, for example, compromise with the liberal bourgeoisie undermined the struggle against fascism.
Right-wing propaganda from the American Family Association.

Renton leaves us with a false binary, producing an accidental argument for passivity. He corrects this in “But what if it gets worse from here…” But, by focusing on a sort of empirical snapshot, what Trump has done thus far in terms of policy, he downplays the trajectory of developments:

The whole theme of my new book on fascism is that it is a specific movement with a unique trajectory, in that it does reactionary and mass politics in equal measure. Compared to that, Trump has governed as a ‘reformist’ of the right (albeit an aggressive one), and not a ‘revolutionary’ (or more accurately, a counter-revolutionary).

Trump is certainly a “weaker” manifestation of fascist dynamics than Mussolini or Hitler, much as Bernie Sanders is a “weaker” manifestation of socialist populism than Eugene Debs. But how does Trumpism not basically reprise “reactionary and mass politics in equal measure?” It is not as developed as full-blown Nazism. But fascism is its arc and trajectory.

It is, of course, very unlikely that we will see a totalitarian state magically appear in November. And the full inflection point of any electoral crisis may only come in January. Regardless, there are many forms that terror and fascism can take. And, as noted, we are rapidly slouching toward some of the worst of them.

Moreover, the specifics of the election are perilous. Here we must look beyond horse-race analysis and liberal pipe dreams that a Biden win will bury Trumpism. Liberal extortion — Biden or fascism — fails to examine the true nature of the threat. Our reflex as revolutionaries is to point out the flaws with Biden proper. This is important. But it is also a very limited response. Whatever happens on November 3rd, the Left must understand that we have already, in most respects, lost. Whether Trump wins or loses the election, the proto-fascist movement will consolidate its base and grow.

While a Biden landslide seems unlikely—given the polling data, the electoral college, the fact that many Biden votes will be counted late, the attacks on the postal service, Biden’s lackluster empty-suit campaign, and the fact Biden offers nothing to the working-class and nothing to people of color—in such a scenario Trump might be forced to concede or let himself be removed. But even with a Biden landslide the far right would cry foul. There will be more stochastic terrorism, and the incoming Biden administration will do next to nothing to solve the underlying social and economic problems. The crises will continue to fester. The far right will continue to grow and organize.

More likely, the election will be closer, contested (possibly for months), with the Trump administration ginning up the far right, fostering “random” and organized far right terror, and increased state repression. Judicial norms are just as likely to favor Trump as Biden, and the Democratic Party liberals, lacking the will to fight, make this scenario tend to favor Trump. The death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg eases judicial resistance to Trump. A constitutional crisis is possible—in which Biden is declared president (or clearly should be) and Trump refuses to leave office. The armed sections of the state could remain neutral (the military) or side with Trump (ICE, Homeland Security, the local police). Civilian attempts to remove Trump may be called treason. A Trump victory in this scenario would greatly enhance the threat from both the far right movement and the increasingly authoritarian elements of the state.

In the event of a clear Trump victory we face Trumpism triumphant. There will likely be an increase in state repression and, again, an increase in right-wing terror, and the further shift of the state toward authoritarian ends.

Of course, the future is unpredictable but these seem to be the rough possibilities. The scale of the aforementioned terror and repression is yet to be determined. But regardless of specific outcomes, the (proto-)fascist threat will grow.

United Front or Liberalism?

Renton is also right that there has been an unhelpful tendency on the Left historically to label any and every reactionary politician, movement, or government as fascist. Ronald Reagan was a racist and a reactionary but he was not a fascist. Nor was George W. Bush. Or Richard Nixon. But we shouldn’t let that categorical error blind us to what is developing. Trump is not, at the moment, a fascist per se. But he is actively catalyzing forces that are quickly developing in a fascist direction—both in the streets and in the state.

Again, to quote Renton:

At a certain point in the 1920s, the guns of the far right were a mere boast, at another point they were for real. I don’t discount for a second the possibility of Trump being trapped by his ego, the demand of his supporters, his pathological desire to flatter them…

The Trump administration has been releasing reactionary trial balloons for almost four years. They do this to test the possible. In April, they floated the idea of letting the virus run rampant. Today, there are 200,000 dead in the U.S. alone. There are mass graves. Recently, the assistant secretary of health and public affairs floated the idea that patriots must prepare to put down an imaginary armed left-wing insurrection…

Identifying an increasingly fascist threat does not mean accepting liberalism. Conversely, rejecting liberal extortion doesn’t imply denying fascism. Either position is a position of passivity. Embracing liberalism means waiting for salvation from above—salvation that will not come. At the same time, failing to identify the threat leaves us unprepared.

The liberals can’t beat fascism. Not simply because they were, in recent years, more effective at systematic oppression. We can’t rely on them because liberalism enables fascism. To be clear, a united front of the Left doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t welcome liberals when and if they are willing to fight. It means we won’t allow liberalism to set (and therefore limit) the terms of our struggle.

After World War 2 “liberalism” in the U.S. came to mean, colloquially, “New Deal liberalism.” It implied concessions to (and containment of) the demands of workers and the oppressed. It paralleled (but was far weaker than) European social democracy. “Liberal” was associated in popular consciousness with a kind of limited mainstream leftism. The Democratic Party, since the start of the one sided class war in the 1970s and 1980s, has shed this post-war politics and increasingly returned to liberalism’s bourgeois roots.

In much of the new socialist movement, the word “liberal” has become an epithet; and the use and abuse of the term often seems generational. Most socialists under the age of thirty will not remember a time when “New Deal liberalism” had any real meaning in their lives. Today, liberalism is rightly seen as too often complicit in the immiseration of the working-class, the NGO-ification of our liberation struggles, the utter failures of our union leaderships, the militarization of the police, and the gentrification of our neighborhoods. Liberalism attempts to conceal and appease our suffering with symbolic gestures. But most instances of Liberal #resistance have been tepid failures.

Therefore, Renton is right that there is no approaching a liberal ideologue and saying we should fight together. Liberalism, unlike socialist reformism, is a thoroughly bourgeois ideology. Most white middle-class and upper-class liberals are not doomed by a fascist turn. Most of them can adjust, because, as Marx famously observed, being determines consciousness. Many have no will to fight. And much of the mainstream talk and innuendo about fascism and the 2020 election conceals how liberal policies and politics helped pave the way for Trumpism itself.

May Day parade in the 1930s.

This is why we need a united front of the Left. It may not be enough. But it is our only chance. This is why every left anarchist group, every Maoist, socialist, Communist or Trotskyist group, every left-social democrat, every grassroots BLM organization, every grassroots immigrant rights organization, every queer network, needs to be building an anti-fascist coalition in their city and town immediately. We need to leave our sectarian differences aside. No divisions (in our anti-fascism) over Kronstadt, October, the Chinese Revolution, or even 2020 electoral strategy. We need maximum unity of the Left against the far-right threat. All of those who stand in militant solidarity with all the exploited and oppressed should form part of this front.

Maximum unity doesn’t mean that we can’t have comradely discussions about our historic and theoretical differences. And obviously we should discuss the Left’s electoral failures and the problem of the Democratic Party. Maximum unity means that we will not let these discussions disrupt our joint anti-fascist work.

The U.S. is increasingly polarized and volatile. In April the (proto-)fascists were occupying state capitols and demanding the reopening of the economy for the “liberation” of the small business owners, etc. That human dust was blown away by the millions who protested in the wake of the police murder of George Floyd. But we’ve been unable (thus far) to take the next steps forward and consolidate our side. The far right has regained its lost ground. This is the logic of the moment. It is the symmetry of battle. There will be no middle ground. There will be no unclaimed territory. This is what our liberal friends fail to understand.

We must organize (now) anti-fascist coalitions in every city, neighborhood, and town. Trump’s call out to the Proud Boys, “stand back, and stand by”, during Tuesday’s debate with Biden, is no accident. It is a demand that his (proto-)facsist allies stand ready. THIS is a threat, and SHOWS PERFECTLY why we must prepare to fight—through mass protest, mass struggle, mass direct action and community defense—precisely because we cannot trust the liberals to do so.

I want to thank Holly Lewis, Tish Markley, and Saman Sepehri for input on earlier drafts of this article. Any remaining errors belong to the author alone.

  1. “Fascism unites and arms the scattered masses. Out of human dust, it organizes combat detachments. It thus gives the petty bourgeoisie the illusion of being an independent force. It begins to imagine that it will really command the state. It is not surprising that these illusions and hopes turn the head of the petty bourgeoisie!” Leon Trotsky, “Whither France”, 1934.↩︎
  2. As local states are charged with submitting election results this has become increasingly partisan in recent years, with Republicans pursuing scorched earth politics to maintain majorities. One the one hand, see the battles over gerrymandering. On the other, see the fights in Florida over the 2000 election.↩︎
  3. Of course quantifying this tendency is somewhat difficult, in part because capitalists hedge their bets in terms of political cash, and in part because so much political cash has become “dark money.” However, we can discern some sense of this dynamic from those sections of capital directly tied to the militarization of society (in that they benefit materially from for-profit prisons, the militarization of police departments, etc.), capital’s support for far right politicians, and the wealthy funding for far-right protests. See Alex Kane’s 2014 article from Salon on “Ferguson is big business: How companies are profiting from police crackdowns,” the recent Los Angeles Times article on Trump’s most significant California donors, and the DeVos family funding of far-right armed anti-lockdown protests in Michigan earlier this year.↩︎

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Adam Turl View All

Adam Turl is co-organizer of the Born Again Labor Museum with their partner Tish Turl, and an editor at Locust Review. The opinions expressed here are not necessarily shared by other editors at Locust. In fact they undoubtedly aren’t. And that is totally fine. Turl is also a member of the Tempest Collective.