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Fascism, the far right, and the threat to democracy

A response to Charlie Post

Jonah ben Avraham responds to Charlie Post on how to understand the relationship between the electoral far right and fascist forces and what this means for threats to bourgeois democracy and the strategies for the Left.

“The big bourgeoisie likes fascism as little as a man with aching molars likes to have his teeth pulled.”

  • From the proceedings of the Polish Commission of the Executive Committee of the Communist International, quoted in Trotksy’s Fascism: What It Is and How to Fight It

As a wave of far-right electoral successes has swept the globe this last decade, raising the specter of fascism for a new generation, the elephant in the room has been: How long will these ascendent movements content themselves with submitting to the results of democratic elections? Is today’s international far right looking to use electoral politics, like the German Nazi Party, as part of a strategy for seizing the state and destroying the institutions of capitalist democracy? Or is it a different kind of movement with a strategic commitment to the bourgeois-democratic state that merely displays certain characteristics of classical fascism?

Fascism, the electoral far right, and the threat to bourgeois democracy

In a recent article for Tempest, Charlie Post sought to address this question by theorizing the ascendent electoral right in the “advanced capitalist world” as a fundamentally separate political force from the organized fascist street movement, albeit one which shares “common roots” and a similar worldview with the latter. Both the electoral far right and the fascist movement, according to Post, emerged from the 2008 economic crisis as middle-class efforts to stabilize their social and class position amidst a highly dynamic and threatening socioeconomic environment. They share the same ideology (i.e., “Both claim to defend the ‘little man’ against threats from both ‘above’ and ‘below.’” Both “are hostile to both ‘globalist corporations’ and ‘undeserving’ racial minorities, ‘criminal’ immigrants, ‘corrupt’ unions and sexual and gender ‘deviants.’”).

And, at least in the United States, the membership of the latter is almost wholly included in the membership of the former; nevertheless, Post argues, they must be assessed separately due to their divergent political strategies. “In power,” Post tells us, today’s electoral far right does “not ban opposition parties or disperse elected legislatures, but attempt[s] to implement their policies ‘democratically.’” By contrast, “While fascists historically have contested elections and today will support far-right candidates, their ultimate goal is not to win elections and use the legislative institutions to implement their program,” but to replace democracy with a fascist dictatorship.

To be sure, this is what the electoral far right says about their strategic orientation. The problem is that fascist street thugs make similar claims about their own orientation with just about the same amount of credibility as the reactionaries in office. Post acknowledges that most partisans of contemporary fascist movements will not announce their support for dictatorship openly, but will instead obfuscate their “goals with claims of defending democracy against ‘electoral fraud,’ as [fascists] did after the defeats of Trump and Bolsonaro.” If the electoral far right and fascist movement both conceal their desires to limit or dismantle democracy behind the same concern trolling over election integrity, and both contest elections and advocate for reactionary legislation, then how are we to distinguish between those political forces with the “ultimate goal” of fascism from those with the “ultimate goal” of a more authoritarian, oppressive bourgeois democracy? The answer must be in their actions; and with Post’s metrics for what constitutes concerted anti-democratic action, a fascist threat simply cannot be identified until it is too late.

Post claims that, “Even when the electoral right flirts with extra-legal action, like on January 6 in the U.S. or after Lula’s reelection in Brazil earlier this year, the electoral right always bows to ‘legality.’” But neither Trump nor Bolsonaro bowed of their own volition; they were forced to by the direct intervention of the state. In Brazil and in the United States, it was not the unwillingness of the electoral far right’s champion to seize power that prevented a fascist takeover, but resistance from the ruling class. On January 6, Trump asked to be driven to the capitol building to join the riots, only to be restrained by the Secret Service. Eight senators and 144 representatives voted not to certify the results of the election. Bolsonaro waited out the Brasília riots in Florida, and both Trump and Bolsonaro refused to weigh in on their respective crises until after it had become clear that a seizure of power could not be effected.

In the months leading up to the elections, both leaders implied that they would not submit to electoral defeat without an extra-electoral fight; and both elicited statements from large sections of capital and by each country’s military that a coup would not be tolerated. Even the fact that generals in both countries felt compelled to weigh in indicates that the ruling class does not share Post’s assessment of the “ultimate goal” of the electoral far right. In other words, the generals protecting pro-coup activists in Brazil and undermining them in the United States must have felt that Bolsonaro and Trump were at least entertaining the idea of an extra-legal seizure of power, or else they wouldn’t have made such politically risky statements. The fact that the ruling class is not being forced to turn to fascism as a last line of defense against socialist revolution doesn’t mean that fascists can’t or don’t contest for the organs of the state; it means that where today’s fascists have attempted to challenge capital in the kind of head-on confrontation that a seizure and transformation of the state would require, they have faced incarceration en masse, and not a welcoming into the government as liberators.

The electoral far right doesn’t “always bow to legality”; the capitalist state has forced them to bow in these two instances. And the fact that Donald Trump is currently facing criminal prosecution, not to mention an ongoing investigation specifically into his role in the Capitol riots, evidences that he may not have bowed quite low enough. Likewise, the one former and one current elected official from Germany’s far-right Alternative für Deutschland party did not bow to legality when plotting their foiled coup attempt late last year; they were arrested. This is how the Left should interpret Post’s claim that “The conditions for a fascist seizure of power do not yet exist in the U.S. or any other capitalist society today”: not that fascist movements cannot win representation in government, or won’t attempt confrontations with the ruling class, but that any head-on confrontations that threaten the hegemony of bourgeois-democratic institutions are unlikely to succeed given the current balance of class forces.

Within the most charitable reading of Post, the German coup plot can be explained as an instance of infiltration of the electoral far right by fascist forces; the riots in D.C. and Brasília, as instances of fascists acting alongside and on behalf of the electoral right rather than the electoral right acting itself. But to write off the insurrectionists among the electoral far right as outliers would be to ignore the real debate at hand: the argument that the current wave of far-right electoral victories portends a fascist threat does not rely on the premise that all members and representatives of far-right parties, or even party leaders, are conscious fascist cadre; only that the parties are functionally advancing the cause of fascism by advancing a fascist transitional program and recruiting, training, and platforming fascist cadre.

The question isn’t whether Donald Trump is a fascist or whether the U.S.under Trump was a fascist state; the question is whether the Republican Party is, or is becoming, a fascist social force in the War of Position. How many QAnon followers and supporters of racist militias have to be elected on a given ballot line for us to acknowledge that such a party’s commitment to democracy is at least the subject of significant political struggle within the party? Neither the electoral far right nor the fascist street movement exist in a vacuum. How many Republicans have to vote to overturn an election before we are forced to concede that the electoral right’s commitment to “implement[ing] their policies ‘democratically’” has not withstood pressure from the streets?

To be clear, Post’s rejection of a “creeping fascism” theory of the electoral far right is exactly right. As Achin Vanaik has argued with respect to the Indian context, fascism doesn’t creep. It explodes. There is no incremental road to fascism because it can only emerge as a revolutionary response to a profound social crisis: “It’s not the fascist organism that matures; it’s the fascist situation.” Thus in India, where a classical fascist party with its own mass, street-fighting cadre organization has ruled for nearly a decade, the institutions of capitalist democracy have been preserved. Does this mean that the BJP is somehow not a fascist party? Of course not; they are simply employing a strategy of avoiding an open confrontation with the capitalist class in conditions unfavorable to a fascist seizure of power. But given Modi’s routine imprisonment of journalists, repression of left-wing social movements, and most recently, his expulsion of opposition leader Rahul Gandhi from Parliament, there is no reason to think that he or his party’s commitment to democracy runs any deeper than is forced by the capitalist class’ general opposition to fascism outside moments of absolute necessity.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, with hands held in prayer and head bowed,over a photo of Veer Savarkar, a Hindu nationalist leader  and supporter of European fascism.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi pays tribute to Hindu nationalist leader and supporter of European fascism, Veer Savarkar. Creative Commons photo.

While none of Post’s examples of right-wing movements from the West are quite as clear-cut, owing to the fact that the Western movements have either housed themselves within broader right-wing parties (U.S. and Brazil) or otherwise attempted to cleanse their parties of their more overtly fascist and paramilitary elements (Italy and France), these rhetorical and organizational strategies should in no way be confused with genuine commitments to liberal democracy—neither strategic, nor principled. In fact, Republican lawmakers across the country have begun with increasing frequency to employ the same anti-democratic methods as the BJP in administering the capitalist state. That doesn’t make the United States a “fascist country”; but it demonstrates a similarly shallow commitment on the part of the U.S. right as the Indian right to the continued health, or even legitimacy, of bourgeois-democratic institutions.

Democracy and The Far Right in Israel

Whereas the far right has thus far avoided an open confrontation with the capitalist class in India, France, and Italy, and has suffered embarrassing defeats in such confrontations in the United States and Brazil, the ongoing constitutional crisis in the state of Israel represents fascism’s most advanced confrontation with capital yet in the post-2008 period. Moreover, the Israeli case demonstrates exactly what it means that there is no incremental road to fascism: When the fascists try it, the ruling class drops the gloves.

While the fascist street movement in Israel more closely resembles the Indian movement in that it is more violent and advanced with a significant history of pogroms and other forms of organized, mass political and racial violence, the Israeli far right’s organization at large more closely resembles the movements discussed in Post’s article.

Like the French and Italian movements, the Israeli far right is represented (in part) by a sanitized party of classical fascism and relies on informal connections between the violent street movement and their representatives in office rather than official party paramilitaries. Like the U.S. and Brazilian movements, the Israeli far right’s governing coalition is led by an establishment, neoliberal, conservative party—albeit, one which has been forced substantially to the right in the last five years. If Post’s analysis were correct, we could expect the Israeli electoral far right—divorced organizationally from its terrorist wings and street movements since at least the 1990’s—not to “ban opposition parties or disperse elected legislatures, but attempt to implement their policies ‘democratically.’” Instead, they have conditioned their participation in government on the center right helping to instigate a constitutional crisis—a process which they have used to attack democracy directly and grow their own paramilitary power independent of the state.

While the judicial reforms being advocated by the Israeli right do not constitute an overthrow of democracy per se, they would abolish all checks on the power of the right-wing government and render the constitutional framework of the Israeli state obsolete. Initial policy proposals for a post-judicial review government include a contingent ban on Arabs from sitting in the Knesset, the criminalization of violations of Halakhah (Jewish law), an end to the ban on racist parties, and unmitigated criminal immunity for Israeli occupation soldiers and police. Some on the right have proposed a law reminiscent of Mussolini’s Acerbo Law, which would grant the governing coalition an additional 12 unelected seats in the Knesset. The government would be poised to annex the occupied Palestinian territories and designate their Palestinian residents as “subjects,” rather than citizens, as the right has sought for decades; and with their power unchecked, a simple-majority government could easily use the reforms to decimate civil rights for LGBTQ people and religious minorities, rig elections, or even overturn formal democracy altogether.

Moreover, the Israeli military’s rank and file already closely collaborates with fascist mobs and militias in the West Bank, and a recent investigation uncovered the formation of an entirely new IDF unit effectively deputizing members of the far-right, terrorist Hilltop Youth movement, which is already responsible for a dozen or more violent attacks on Palestinian civilians. Whereas a significant constituency among the Israeli intelligence establishment and military reserves sided with the opposition on judicial reform, the rank and file of the occupation forces is much more sympathetic to the far right; and in order to agree to negotiations, Kahanist National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir forced Netanyahu to promise the creation of a National Guard to be overseen by Ben-Gvir himself with the express purpose of smashing the Left. In this context, concerns about extra-legal attempts by the Israeli fascist movement to seize power or otherwise force the curtailing of democracy are far from unwarranted.

As Post suggests, the conditions for a fascist seizure of power are not yet ripe in Israel. With no realistic left-wing threat to capitalist hegemony present, the ruling class has overwhelmingly rejected the right’s blatant attack on democracy and declared an all-out class war on the government. The climax was of course the March 27 general strike, in which the business community came together with the Likud-led Histadrut (labor federation) to shut down the entire country; but organized labor was a late addition to the anti-reform resistance. Weekly protests across the country have brought out hundreds of thousands of people since January, pulling heavily from the tech sector, intelligentsia, and other middle-class professionals. On February 12, almost 300 tech companies, law firms, venture capital funds, and medical practices shut down and organized buses for workers to protest the reforms around the country. The governor of the Bank of Israel spoke out against the reforms in January, and has projected decreases in GDP growth of over 50 percent this year due in no small part to a decrease in capital flows from uneasy and anti-government investors.

In mid-February, Israeli banking sources estimated that NIS 4 billion ($1.1 billion) had already been transferred out of the country, and this trend has no doubt only deepened since then: later in the month, Bessemer Venture Partners, a venture capital fund with over $1 billion (NIS 3.64 billion) in investments in Israeli hi tech, advised its Israeli companies to move currency out-of-country. Intel announced in January that it would no longer be moving ahead with its $200 million R&D project in Haifa, and several tech companies and capital funds have pulled out of Israel entirely. As tech CEO Eynat Guez put it after announcing Papaya Global’s withdrawal from Israel, “Startup Nation without a democracy cannot stand.” The weekly anti-reform protests have captured this sentiment in a recurring slogan appearing on banners and signs: “Save startup nation.”

The business sector has been joined in their opposition to the right’s package of judicial reforms by a number of defense and intelligence figures. Documents leaked by the Pentagon show that the Mossad actively encouraged agents to participate in anti-reform demonstrations, and a letter opposing reforms was signed by five former Mossad chiefs and several hundred former employees. Former Shabak Director Yuval Diskin called for Israelis to “shut down the country” in January over the reforms. And of course, the March general strike was incited by Netanyahu’s since-aborted firing of Defense Minister and Cast Lead commanding general Yoav Gallant after his call for a pause on judicial reform.

The resistance, of course, has not been limited to the ruling class. Polls report that 21 percent of Israelis have taken part in anti-reform protests as of the end of March, with the largest single day of protest bringing out more than 6 percent of the country’s total population. The demonstrations have been absolutely massive; but they have also skewed heavily toward a secular, Ashkenazi, middle-class constituency. Mizrahi participation has been low; Arab participation, minimal; and the demonstrations overall have been characterized by an overwhelming number of Israeli flags and a general anti-militancy. Confrontations with militant settlers and the police have raised the question of solidarity with Palestinians among the protesters; but this has been the exception, not the rule, and many protesters have collaborated with police and taken direct action to repress pro-Palestinian elements within the demonstrations.

We are as yet unsure how the judicial reform drama will play out, and to what extent the Israeli capitalist class’ widespread opposition to the hollowing out of democracy will limit the far right’s ambitions. The governing coalition has already called tens of thousands into the streets in support of reform, and the right-wing demonstrations have been predictably violent: fascist militias and football gangs have jumped protesters, shot fireworks at them, and set up checkpoints to bar Arabs and leftists from right-leaning neighborhoods. But we should make no mistake: Itamar Ben-Gvir was forced just two years ago to stop hanging, in his home, a portrait of Baruch Goldstein, a Kahanist terrorist who murdered 29 Muslim worshippers and wounded 125. He was too racist even for the IDF and barred from military service when he was 17. He has participated repeatedly in settler riots, pogroms, and acts of provocation in the occupied Palestinian territories, and as of 2015 had been indicted 53 times for his fascist activism. He will not always bow to legality. The only thing separating his party from ushering in fascism is power.

The Israeli case is instructive to U.S. socialists not because it is anything approaching identical to the situation in the United States, but because it demonstrates that formal disaffiliation from fascism in no way inoculates a right-wing electoral party or coalition from surrendering leadership to a fascist vanguard. The mainstream right wing of Israeli politics, and even the Dati Leumi settler movement, largely condemned Kahanism and resisted its participation in government—right up until the Religious Zionist party welcomed the Kahanists onto a joint electoral slate and elevated their political party, Otzmah Yehudit, from zero to six members of Knesset, with the practical ability to set the agenda of the entire government. The key factor allowing this in the state of Israel was a catalytic social environment for the growth of fascism within the base of a major constituency of Israeli politics—namely, apartheid conditions and military rule in the occupied West Bank.

The U.S.’s stark political-geographic divide along urban/rural lines has created a similarly attractive environment for fascist organizing, wherein the police, local governments, and civic institutions of all types are enlisted in the right’s war on LGBTQ people and people of color. In this context, and aided by the social crisis provoked by the Long Recession and the COVID-19 pandemic, U.S. fascists have been extremely effective at attacking the base of the Republican Party and contesting for—perhaps winning—hegemony within much of the institutional apparatus of conservative politics, e.g., evangelical churches, gun shows, right-wing media, etc.

The U.S. fascist movement is, no doubt, a decade or more behind in this process compared to the Israeli right. Still, the stark division of U.S. civil society and the dramatic rightward shift among key constituencies of U.S. politics in response to successive waves of Black rebellion across the United States are not entirely unlike the wholesale shift to the right among Orthodox Israelis in response to the Second Intifada. The Israeli right shows us that even outside of revolutionary moments, a growing fascist parasite on the mainstream right’s political base can metastasize in the right social, political, and economic environment and infect the whole.

Strategic conclusions

I agree with every word of Post’s comments on strategies for the Left. Whether you think that fascists represent a distinct current from the electoral far right or the vanguard layer of its social base, militant anti-fascist confrontation and organizing toward a fighting, working-class alternative solution to the crises of capitalism are both immediate strategic imperatives for the Left. But while certain tactics-heavy, security-focused responses to the rise of a fascist movement may put the cart before the horse in several respects, to dismiss concerns about fascism and final solutions—particularly those of the large transgender constituency of the armed Left in the United States—would be a mistake. Republican elected officials are pushing policy increasingly aimed at the out-and-out eradication of trans people, for just one example of their attacks on the working class and the oppressed. The socialist response must not underestimate the dangers posed by those already in power, but work to reorient our comrades away from individual preparedness and militancy, and toward the organization of masses in as militant and confrontational of anti-fascist action as possible.

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Jonah ben Avraham View All

Jonah ben Avraham is a Midwest-based socialist and anti-fascist activist. He is a member of the Tempest Collective.