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The fight against the far right

Reports from the front

With open encouragement from Donald Trump and often working hand-in-hand with local police, the far right in the U.S. has become a serious threat. White supremacists have driven cars into Black Lives Matter rallies. They no longer just bring guns to protests. They are prepared to use them. Many on the Left believe that the rise of neo-fascism has created a real threat to what is already very limited democracy in the U.S.

On October 11, Tempest presented a webinar on how to fight the far right featuring four socialist activists. The following transcript has been lightly edited for clarity. Watch the roundtable here.

Joe Allen has been an active socialist for four decades. In the 1990s, he was a member of the Midwest Network to Stop the Klan. During the last decade, he has regularly written on the far right in U.S. history and contemporary politics. He is a member of the Chicago DSA. Megan Lessard is a member of New York City for Abortion Rights. Robert Cuffy is a revolutionary socialist who is a co-founder of the Socialist Workers Alliance of Guyana. He lives in Brooklyn, works in child welfare, and is a rank-and-file member of DC37 Local 371 and a member of DC37 Progressives Caucus. He is also part of the Afrosocialist Caucus and Labor Branch of the NYC DSA. Isabelle is an anti-fascist activist originally from Rochester, NY. She’s been a street medic on the frontlines of the recent Black Lives Matter protests in Portland, Oregon. The webinar was moderated by Alejandro Quryat, a member of the Tempest Collective and Venezuelan Workers’ Solidarity. He's also active with the Legal Workers’ Rank and File in NYC.

Alejandro Quryat: Welcome to this webinar on how to fight the far right. I’ll be moderating and facilitating the discussion today. We have four speakers, each of whom has been organizing in different fields, in different cities, with different assessments of the current crisis of U.S. politics. They will comment on how to organize to defeat the far right and those that enable it at different levels of the state. Let’s get started with Joe.

Joe Allen: Thanks a lot, Alejandro. I just wanted to start off by saying we’ve just seen an amazing victory over fascism in Greece and to extend our congratulations and solidarity to our Greek comrades who carried out an amazing campaign both within and outside the courtroom to get the proudly-Nazi Golden Dawn labeled a criminal organization. While this may not put an end to fascism in Greece, it is certainly a major blow to fascism in Europe. I’m sure there are things that we can learn from this campaign that we can bring here to the United States. And I hope we can talk to our Greek comrades about that campaign and those issues and its relevance. It’s a pretty amazing political development.

I had an article posted a few weeks ago on Tempest called “A threshold has been crossed.” It was our attempt to kind of come to grips with the resurgence of an armed far right movement in this country, which has the sympathy of the state, local police officers, and the president of the United States. It began in the springtime around demonstrations to “reopen” the economy. In a lot of places, but specifically in the upper Midwest, it was egged on by Trump. Last week, it was revealed that a small paramilitary group, the Wolverine Watchman, were attempting to carry out the kidnapping of the Michigan governor in an attempt to start a race war. Whatever practical politics that may not really reflect on their part, it goes to show that there’s a new and very dangerous Right in this country and that it very much sees itself as being a force directed at Black Lives Matter, the new Black liberation movement in this country, and against the new socialist Left. We need to take this threat very, very seriously. A lot of what I’m going to say today is really about what comes after Trump.

One of the positive developments for the building of an anti-fascist movement in this country is that we’ve just been through a national uprising against racism where 15 to 26 million people, the New York Times estimated, came out in very multi-racial demonstrations in this country, all over the place, every state, every major city suburbs, small towns, against racism. And we far out dwarfed the forces of the organized far right, whether they call themselves Patriot groups or vigilantes or whatever. We are far, far bigger than what they are on the ground.

It’s also hopeful that Donald Trump seems to be carrying out a very determined path to be a one term president. Unless something is going on that I think is not visible to us right now, Donald Trump will probably lose the presidency by a clear majority, if not more so, in the next few weeks, and this will produce along with the arrest of the Michigan militia, something of a temporary crisis for the far right, which will give us some space to think and to organize. In what comes next, I think we’ll be playing a part in building that new anti-fascist movement.

We all recognize that 2016 was a turning point for both the Left and the Right of this country. That is, Bernie’s presidential campaign and then Trump’s campaign legitimized both socialism and authoritarian politics. And I don’t think that either one is going away. We also know that the attempt by the far right to take advantage of this in the early days of the Trump administration led to disaster for them.

Anti-fascists and fascists in Charlottesville in 2017.

In August 2017 in Charlottesville, they attempted to hold the biggest far right rally demonstration since the late 1930s. It was frightening, but we mobilized thousands of people against them. It ended in disaster for them when James Field murdered Heather Heyer and injured many other people when he drove his car into an anti-fascist demonstration. Soon afterwards we saw mass demonstrations in Boston of 40,000 people who came out against them and equally large numbers in the Bay Area against the far right, which produced a major crisis for the far right. Many groups disintegrated, fell apart, went to war with each other. Some people just disappeared from public view. If you were sick and tired of Richard Spencer, he went into semi-retirement only to reemerge to endorse Joe Biden, one of the great ironies of our time. That was only a few short years ago.

However, this year, we’ve seen a resurgence of the far right, and this has been egged on by Trump, who they’ve relied quite heavily on for legitimacy, political credibility, and so forth. One great concern over the next few weeks is whether we will see the type of voter intimidation that Trump has been bellowing about in Washington and whether militias will respond to his efforts to do that or not.

People I know across the country are involved in many different aspects of defending voting rights, protecting their neighborhoods, defending immigrants, defending abortion rights, and all of these local campaigns. We want to see these local efforts as hopefully creating a new national anti-fascist movement in the future. I think there’s also some very serious political problems that we also need to confront. For example, one outgrowth of the FBI’s arrest of the Michigan militia has been the fact that many liberals are now talking about how under the next Biden administration the FBI will once again assume its credible role as a law enforcement agency, that they will unleash the FBI on the far right in this country. As both socialists and anti-racist activists who have a political memory, we know that the FBI is far more interested in fighting a Black liberation movement and a socialist movement than the far right. So that will make up a big political difference between us and our liberal friends.

The other problem is how do we begin to build a movement, particularly in working class neighborhoods and institutions, against the far right. I have a great concern about the influence and support for various far right ideas that exist among a broad layer of American workers, whether that be zenophobic ideas against immigrants around the issue of China, old fashioned American anti-Black racism that has been a constant, historic problem in the American working class. But also added to these is the widespread acceptance of these QAnon theories, which are just rehabilitated anti-Semitism. And these are widespread. These are not isolated ideas.

After the events recently in Michigan, we also have to keep in mind that the far right, though it may be extremely primitive in its politics and even comical in some of its actions, is extremely dangerous. What we learned back in 1995 is that two guys in a truck can do a hell of a lot of damage to people. How one specifically deals with that is a difficult political question. But I think trying to root the next anti-fascist movement in working class communities and in working class institutions is going to be one of the most important things that we would do.

Hopefully we can start that inside of the teacher unions, which are such a flashpoint for both the vitriol of the mainstream and far right, but also have been one of the most important in terms of fighting back and showing leadership in the working class over the last few years.

Ultimately, though, we have to really think about the importance of being very clear about what our political objectives are. Many of us are members of DSA. Many socialists are not. But I think we all agree that the ultimate answer to defeating the fascists is building a working class socialist alternative. So anti-fascism shouldn’t be seen as some kind of sectional interest or one-off affair. 2016 showed us that it’s now a permanent feature of American politics and that we need to build an ongoing anti-fascist movement to defeat it.

Megan Lessard: Hi, my name is Megan Lessard, and I’m an organizer with New York City for Abortion Rights (NYC-FAR) . We formed in the wake of president Trump’s inauguration in 2017 when anti-abortion activists planned to hold mass protests outside Planned Parenthoods across the country as part of a day of action to demand the organization’s defunding and the criminalization of abortion.

Professionalized reproductive rights groups like NARAL and Planned Parenthood responded in the same sort of anemic fashion as they’ve been responding to right-wing incursions for years, calling for donations to Planned Parenthood, circulating online petitions, and encouraging us all to vote blue in downstream elections. Crucially, they discouraged any kind of direct engagement with the antis.

In New York, Planned Parenthood’s executive leadership scheduled a rally in Washington Square Park for the same time as literally hundreds of anti-abortion protesters were planning to descend on the Bleecker Street Planned Parenthood clinic just a few blocks away. So, without any organized strategy for confronting this right-wing mobilization outside our clinics and in our streets, a loose coalition of socialists, feminists, and advocates for reproductive justice came together to stage a counter protest outside that Bleecker Street Planned Parenthood.

We met these right-wing forces where they appeared. We turned out hundreds of supporters that day. We blocked patients from having to see these anti-abortion protesters. We held a powerful speak-out during which people shared moving testimonies about their own abortions and the role that reproductive freedom had played in their own lives.

New York City for Abortion Rights activists outside a Planned Parenthood.

We really took the antis by surprise that day. They did not expect us to be out there. Part of that is because the mainstream reproductive rights movement has seeded so much ground—literally ground—outside of their clinics. They really discourage any kind of more militant clinic defense or tactics to confront the right directly outside of their doors. They’ve tried unsuccessfully for years to de-politicize the space outside of abortion clinics. We, as an organization, believe that that is a losing strategy.

We approach our work with the understanding that, in the words of feminist critic Laura Briggs, “all politics are reproductive politics.” So in the most fundamental sense the “AFAB” or assigned female at birth body with its capacity to gestate and to give birth to new life, is a crucial site of production. Until everything’s fully automated, we’re going to need a constant supply of new workers. Oppressive hierarchical systems from capitalism to patriarchy to more authoritarian tendencies depend quite literally on the unremunerated labor of people born female. Not just pregnancy and childbirth, but also social reproduction, the invisible caregiving work that keeps the whole system in motion.

So, abortion really does pose an existential threat to maintaining a rigid, racialized social order. The right will do anything to prevent people from disrupting that order. It’s no coincidence that a right-wing movement decrying illegal immigration is also staunchly anti-abortion. You can hear so-called “birth panic” rhetoric across the right from Donald Trump’s recent rally in Minnesota where he drummed up resentment against refugees to hand-wringing about declining birth rates and its potential impact on the economy.

We have overtly racist, pro-natalist politicians like Iowa Representative Steve King who sort of says what Donald Trump hasn’t said yet. In 2017, he’s quoted as saying “you cannot rebuild your civilization with somebody else’s babies. You’ve got to keep your birth rate up and with that you need to teach your children your values. In doing so you can grow your population, you can strengthen your culture, and you can strengthen your way of life.” So that’s Steve King being sort of like the id of the far right. He articulates what everybody else is thinking, that white Christian women need to have more babies.

New York City for Abortion Rights, believing strongly that all politics tie in some way to reproductive politics, places a heavy emphasis on direct action because we see abortion clinics as an important site for that right-wing movement-building. Anti-abortion politics are at the center of right-wing ideology. But also, authoritarianism has certain spatial demands. To grow, it needs access to public space. It needs visibility. It needs to bind people together effectively through spectacle and violence. In the United States, for different historical reasons, a large percentage of abortions are performed at freestanding clinics, so they’re a prime target for the Right.

We as a group maintain that any kind of oppositional presence outside of a clinic is a form of intimidation and that goal of enforcing a birth is inherently violent. But, it’s important to recognize that this violence isn’t always overt. Not everybody holding a fetus poster outside of the Planned Parenthood is a Three Percenter. There are churches. There are grandmothers. There are people praying. In New York, we get regular groups of churchgoers protesting outside of that same Bleecker Street Planned Parenthood that Trump’s post inauguration demonstration was held at. They respond to our critique by saying, “Oh, we’re just praying. It’s just a peaceful expression. It’s our first amendment right.”

We see abortion as an issue at which all these different right-wing tendencies converge, from your prayerful grandmother to your Proud Boy. Fascism needs to secure the buy-in of an aggrieved middle-class upset with stagnant wages, falling standards of living, loss of status, misdirected anger at outsider groups, etc. The grandmas outside of abortion clinics help make the Proud Boys acceptable.

We’ve seen that the liberal reproductive rights’ response to this rising wave of aggression has been utterly passive. We think that it is a failing strategy to de-politicize the space outside of abortion clinics. It’s sort of a fantasy that if we ignore their harassment, we can defend abortion in apolitical terms with slogans like “abortion is healthcare” and “abortion is just one of the many services that Planned Parenthood provides.” We believe fundamentally that this is not an anti-fascist strategy and it’s not a winning strategy.

As abortion rights’ activists, we don’t want to fight within the liberal confines of personal choice and autonomy, but against a system to which economic exploitation, racist violence, and the subjugation of AFAB people are absolutely essential. To that end, we’re calling for the mobilization of street-based activism. We need a fighting grassroots movement for reproductive justice to confront the Right, wherever it appears.

Robert Cuffy: I wanted to thank the comrades from Tempest for inviting me and thank Joe and Megan for their presentations for grounding us in the historical moment. Funnily enough, in preparing for this, I found the notes from a similar talk on fascism and anti-fascism I did a few years ago, and it’s been very instructive to look at what I wrote then and how things have changed in the three years or so. One of the things that’s more palpable is that the threat of the far right is much more acute. I think everyone is feeling that, and the specific fact that we’re living not just in an election year, but in an election year where COVID-19 has killed over 200,000 people in the United States alone, many more across the world, and now we’re facing an economic crisis as well, and this crisis of racism to which the Black Lives Matter movement has responded, just puts everything into sharper definition.

Though the panel is structured around fighting the far right, inevitably we must speak on the question of fascism. It’s not coincidental that Joe started with pointing out the victory against Golden Dawn in Greece, an openly fascist organization, because that is the extreme to which the far right goes right. There are levels of reaction with fascism being the worst. To be the semi-orthodox Marxist I am, I do think it’s important to speak and to have a conception of fascism to go forward. I like Leon Trotsky’s definition because it is both orthodox and a dynamic definition. Clearly there are different aspects of it that have changed in the almost a century since it was written. History, of course, can’t be carried along by old quotes, but it’s good to build on.

So Trotsky says, “At the moment that the ‘normal’ police and military resources of the bourgeois dictatorship, together with their parliamentary screens, no longer suffice to hold society in a state of equilibrium — the turn of the fascist regime arrives. Through the fascist agency, capitalism sets in motion the masses of the crazed petty bourgeoisie and the bands of declassed and demoralized lumpenproletariat — all the countless human beings whom finance capital itself has brought to desperation and frenzy.” Trotsky goes on to say that fascism demands that the bourgeoisie carry out its most extreme task of liquidating workers’ organizations and any kinds of organizations of struggle.

We can say that today that’s not the social structure of the state in the United States, but it’s important to know that between a bourgeois democracy and fascism there are many different forms that the state can take, and it’s important to then concretely analyze the historical moment that we’re in.

To do that, you have to look to see how we got here. You then have to examine the issue of Trump and Trumpism. Where did this guy come from? Trump is located within the increase in populism generally, but specifically right-wing populism, across the world. It came about as a result and a reaction to the economic crisis from the subprime mortgage crisis, which like many things in the world in the United States started with the theft of Black wealth through the subprime mortgage crisis. As those mortgage securities were bundled and sold across the world and Black people couldn’t repay the loans, there was this massive effect in the U.S. housing market that rippled across the world. We are still not fully recovered from that Great Recession. But one of the responses to it is that working class people rose up and said this is enough. We saw more movements like Occupy Wall Street and even the Tea Party come to the fore. Movements that said we want to fight back against the establishment. This insider politics thing is not working for us, regular folk. We need to change the state in such a way and change society in such a way that the common person gets their share.

Historically, these populist movements never achieved that task of the democratization of the state, and in failing to achieve that task they then invest their energies into populist figures. This might be controversial for the Left perspective, but on the Left, those energies were invested into Bernie Sanders and his campaign. On the Right, it was invested into Trump. Not to replay the whole 2016 election, but we know that Trump was able to outmaneuver the various wings of the Republican Party by speaking to both the real suffering that the Republican base was going through and the racist mythology of the American golden age of capitalism where white supremacy was more openly tolerated. “Make America great again.” And in many ways, the Democrats were not able to compete with Trump on the populist note because their response to
“make America great again” was “America is already great,” which doesn’t acknowledge the suffering people were going through.

Some other traits of populism are that it looks to this populist figure the way in which people in the Bible might’ve looked at Jesus as he threw the money changers out of the temple, that this person’s coming in to clean house. In the same way, Bernie said he needed to come in and break up the banks. Trump said he was going to come in and drain the swamp. But this is connected to fascism because to pull these things off you need close and tight control of the state. I think to talk about the far right in the United States and for us to only focus on the far right vigilante groups and the far right petty bourgeois groups and not talk about the role of the state is pretty mistaken. Joe alluded to the way in which Trump dog whistled the Right into the Charlottesville demonstration by giving them subtle clues that it was okay to come out and be what you are. But it’s gone beyond subtle clues if at a national televised debate the President can tell the Proud Boys to stand by. And almost nothing happens in the U.S. specifically without the sanction and the blessing of the state because there’s such an enormous state apparatus. If you don’t really kowtow to it, it can come in and repress you.

The fact that the state has given a green light to fascist groups is an indicator that we’re moving away from right-wing populism into a kind of semi-Bonapartist figure in Trump, who is willing to mobilize these crazed petty bourgeois masters in the way Trotsky talks about. He’s also willing to transform the state in its configuration as an armed body of men into a direct tool of repression against social movements.

For example, we’ve seen in response to Black Lives Matter, Trump wanted to just bring the military straight out to crush the protests. The rest of the bourgeoisie and the national security establishment disagreed with him. But then he found a workaround and created BORTAC, this federal police force, that was dispatched to places where the Black Lives Matter movement was at its height.

Anti-fascist protesters in Portland.

There’s clearly movement in this direction because even the unprecedented things that Trump has brought about, like an attorney general who doesn’t make a pretense to objectivity and makes clear that “I’m Trump’s man” and helped him put together the federal police, even now Trump is saying that William Barr, the attorney general, is not going far enough and “why aren’t you prosecuting my political enemies. What that points to is that we’re in a moment where we have bourgeois democracy in this country—of course, it has its huge and gaping holes—but we want to preserve what we have because the democracy that we have is something we fought hard for. It wasn’t gifted to us by anyone. And if people are using fascism as a bogey, we then say, well, between democracy and fascism, there are many things. And it seems like we’re on the verge of a constitutional coup.

I’m glad Alejandro is here. He can speak to how constitutional coups happened in Venezuela, where you restrict the rights to certain bodies that are supposed to be checks and balances on the executive. So I’ll end by saying to speak on the question of the far right we have to both speak to not just how our movements fight it, but we have to understand it, analyze it, and deal with this question of living history that Walter Rodney talks about. It’s very easy for me to dust off a Trotsky quote and bring it to you. It’s much harder for me to say in October 2020 in the United States, this is our analysis. If we don’t share a common ground, we’re going to have our struggles very disoriented. The practical steps being taken by people like Megan with New York City for Abortion Rights clearly need to go forward, movements in the streets, but we cannot ignore the organs of the state that can be used as well. For example, in Greece we heard people were fighting in the streets and they fought in the courts to get a victory against Golden Dawn. We should not be counter posing those two things to each other.

Isabelle: Thanks Ale for the introduction and Tempest for hosting and the other speakers.

Robert basically broke down everything that we need to know about fascism historically. Double points for a Trotsky quote. But in all seriousness, I think that you’re right Robert that it’s all well and good to be able to share this historical view, but it’s pressing both to talk about the situation we’re in right now and also what we need to do. I think it’s important that we recognize some of the economic tendencies that have existed in the country since the 1970s economic crisis that are at the heart of neoliberalism.

For instance, in my city of Rochester, the closing of Kodak—the main employer in Rochester—led to not only the layoffs of thousands of shop floor workers, but also the layoffs of engineers, chemists, and shop floor managers. To a large extent, the city has never recovered, it hasn’t even come close, and the suburbs have probably not recovered much either. Although you can see that the suburb that touches the city of Rochester has the best school district in New York, while Rochester has the worst school district in New York.

So, we have to think about what are the economic forces at play. What’s very obvious to me is that there’s a dissatisfied middle-class and especially an upper middle class that are not doing as well as their parents, are feeling like they’re not having as easy of a time. There’s not as much upward mobility inside of the middle class. So lower middle class folks trying to eek out a better living are not able to. And the groups that have the best ready-made politics to answer why that exists are the “near-right” politicians who thrive on racism, xenophobia, and have shifted farther and farther right on those questions and then of course the fascist cadre who have said all along that the issue is multiculturalism, globalization, etc.

These ideas are finding a foothold in areas where you have tighter communities of white men who are dissatisfied with the way that the world is going and also have the means to buy arms and armor and the job security to be able to go out into the streets on the weekends sometimes without even a mask on, just bold faced and think they can get away with it.

What that has meant in Portland is that you have days like August 24, when probably the largest gathering of fascist protesters came like the Proud Boys and a bunch of other people. They used bear mace, improvised pepper bombs, smoke grenades, and things like that. They were just openly throwing those things into the larger—but not much larger—crowd of anti-fascists.

What strikes me most about that particular day is firstly the volume of patients that I treated. I treated dozens and dozens and dozens of patients who were covered head to toe in chemical weapons of some sort. Probably hot sauce, but it could be any chemicals. And secondly, of course, the fact that as soon as the fascist protesters left, the federal agents and the police in Portland declared a riot immediately. As soon as the last person from the fascist protest was in the parking garage where they were all parked, there was a riot declared because the anti-fascists were still in the streets. It’s really important to know that the state is not going to do anything to prevent right-wing violence, even in a city like Portland, which is supposedly so liberal, the police force is under mayoral control, and the mayor is supposedly so liberal. The mayor could have easily have broken things up immediately, sent everybody home, declared a riot while there were still fascists there, but decided not to. So, that’s probably what to expect from your liberal city.

I also want to say that from the perspective of the Black Lives Matter protests the state has completely failed us, and I think that’s also important to recognize. Ambulances won’t come into protest zones. Riots are declared. We’ve been blanketed with tear gas because of the BORTAC teams and the police.

What we need to look to now is what we can do to protect our own communities. The most important thing we’ve done in Portland is have mutual aid groups. We have hundreds of medics. We have thousands of people who are doing some kind of support for the protests. Those people have also moved into anti-fascist work when that’s been necessary, evacuation work for the fires, and everything like that. Right now is the time to build communities. It’s the time to figure out what it is that you’re going to provide if things get worse. What mass mobilization needs to happen. So now is the time to organize, because if we had met the fascists on August 24 with 10,000 people, I don’t think they’d be so bold to cover people with improvised weapons and things like that. When we meet them two-to-one, when we meet them one-on-one, or God forbid when they catch us alone, things are quite different.

What we’re seeing in Portland is what happens when there’s a runaway fascist movement, when the fascist movement is growing and the anti-fascist movement is not growing or is staying still. If you’re in a city that isn’t the headquarters of the Proud Boys, be happy about that, but get ready. And if you are in a city like Portland or anywhere else in the Pacific Northwest where the Proud Boys have a huge presence or any of the militias in the Midwest, I would say now’s the time to get organized, get ready, understand how you can mobilize 10,000 people tomorrow because you might have to.

Lastly, get ready to replace the state because, as we saw in Portland, the idea that an ambulance is on the way is a luxury. The idea that a hospital won’t be completely crowded with people is a luxury. COVID’s taught us that as well. The idea that PPE will be provided to your hospital is a luxury. I don’t want to sound all doom and gloom, but we have a lot of organizing work to do on the ground and it does not come from voting for Joe Biden. It comes from talking to your neighbors and building organizations, whatever those organizations may be.

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