I am half out of my chair, wagging a finger at a rumpled comrade across the conference table. He is mouthing yet another misbegotten argument. But, before I can lob a verbal hand grenade his way, my erstwhile rival employs a bit of misdirection, using a card trick to illustrate how ‘false populists’ dupe the unwitting into acting against their own interests. The slight of hand lards a meandering presentation, something about fighting extremism but accepting ‘real’ grievances, supporting tolerance and diversity but rejecting hate and privilege, and is taken by many in attendance to be the summit of human wisdom on the topic at hand, which is fascism. I want to throw something—or throw up. It is about 1995, somewhere in the United States (really anywhere will do) and a dear friend and mentor is quietly urging me to stop wagging my finger.
“Sit down!” He says.
“Fold your hands into your lap and let him speak…then pull it apart, piece by piece.”
Then, he whispers, “Omne trium perfectum. Tell them what you are going to tell them. Tell them. Tell them what you just told them.”
Good advice when you are proposing ideas that break with accepted conventions; excellent advice if your emotions drive your intellect in the manner of a soap box orator. Throughout this gathering, held among fight-the-right activists from around the country, I try my best. But my best is not enough. My ideas don’t carry the day.
It is now some 20 years later and I’m not half out of my chair, nor am I standing on it. I’m throwing it—perhaps at you.
I am a ghost of anti-fascism past.
A restless spirit from history; a chair flying past your ear.
While I am not so arrogant to claim that if my ideas had carried the day then we wouldn’t be faced with a President Trump today, I am brash enough to state that the ideas which did carry the day during that gathering also failed to do as much.
Perhaps I can jog a memory that will cause you to shift uncomfortably in your chair. Am I mocking yet another premature obituary of the Christian right? Am I insisting that anti-fascists confront white nationalists on their own terrain? Am I noting how fascism can shape-shift and thereby ensure its enduring political relevance? Am I pounding my fist on the table, demanding foundations fund Antifa spy-craft instead of yet another conference on privilege? I hope the outline of my silhouette makes you a bit uneasy. But, behind every posthumous revenge lurks a pyrrhic victory. I am a ghost, after all, with nothing left of me but these words in the digital ether.
Don Hammerquist, in his valuable booklet Fascism & Anti-Fascism opens with the self-effacing statement:
“Feel free to shoot down any part of the argument, but remember that on the major points, validity isn’t ultimately a scholastic matter, but an issue that will be determined and ‘decided’ in struggle.” True enough. Feel free to attack what I write, too. However, keep in mind another dictum coined by C.L.R James on the same topic:
“A correct orientation does not mean victory. Incorrect orientations so glaringly false lead to certain defeat.” (The World Revolution 1917-1936, Chapter 12 “After Hitler, Our Turn”) The title of that chapter should be familiar to you, likewise the singular importance of its lesson.
With that in mind, here’s what I’m going to tell you, in three parts, naturally.
What you consider helpful in answering the age-old question ‘What is fascism?’ has probably been so inept as to invite that riposte rooted in mathematics: it is so bad it doesn’t even qualify as wrong. When trying to grasp the nature of fascism many radicals lean heavily on the tortured language of ‘populism’ and end up talking about choo-choo trains. Likewise, many socialists will suddenly morph into economic nationalists and start furiously digging analytical rabbit holes, reinforcing them with a maze of mirrors where we watch each other shadow box. It can be confusing. So, you probably don’t understand what fascism was, much less what it has become. Oh, I know. Who does? Even Nate Silver, that oracle of political prognostication, seemed shocked to find himself saying the words “white nationalism” on a podcast in the summer of 2016 when, had he understood the implications of what he was saying, it could have made a difference. But no matter, revolutionaries shouldn’t expect much from oracles. In any case, even back then it was clear that while the paleo-conservatives had successfully reinvented themselves as the alt-right through audacious counterintelligence initiatives such as the Acorn sting engineered by The Drudge Report, the salacious faux news of Brietbart, the white identitarian antics of Milos Yananoupoulis and the hacked Leninism of Steve Bannon, the progressive and socialist left were busy holding hands, examining and cross-examining their ‘privileges’ or feeling around for a phantom limb that had been amputated by the Democratic party. Meanwhile, much of the socialist left, including comrades at the International Socialist Organization (ISO) offered up wholly derivative, second rate accounts of fascism, forcing the tired bones of comrade Trotsky to carry their water, his petrified frame long ago having collapsed from the strain. But fascism is not a holdover from the past–a ‘basket of deplorables’ as some inept politician once remarked–nor ignorant hicks who clutch onto their God and guns because they fear being left behind. Fascism appears today as a tendency within our political and cultural age and offers itself as an exit strategy from the unsolvable contradictions of our present regimes of accumulation. It is thoroughly modern, or post-modern, if you insist. As white Christian nationalism it vies for supremacy within and between contemporary social classes throughout Europe and North America, where it has a political geography. That’s why Trump chose Pence as his running mate. It is real. It has always been with us. It is here, now and is both similar to, yet different from, ‘fascisms’ from previous eras. While this new fascism comes from the same family tree as its immediate predecessor, cold war fascism, and its antecedent, classical fascism, in important respects it differs from them, too. Getting that overlap and divergence correct is important. The Tea Party rebellion was the bridge between the end of cold war fascism and the beginning of 21st century fascism; of the transformation of the paleoconservative right—always the incubator of fascism in the United States—into the Alt-Right.
If you don’t know what fascism is, you will probably have a hard time fighting it effectively—even if you somehow arrive at the conclusion that it should be fought. Following the victory of Trump, liberals and progressives are leaping to join ‘the resistance’. But their methods follow their theory: fascism is something that comes from outside, not a tendency within our political culture. Their current obsession with Putin is a reflection of their diluted nationalism—what Albert Einstein called the “measles of humanity” that some Democrats offer as an alternative to the much more powerful Spanish Influenza on offer by Republicans. These “I’m With Her Anti-Fascists” who want Trump ridden out of town on a rail—preferably by the cowboys of the ‘Deep State’—should make any radical uncomfortable. But at least they recognize the existence of that political tendency, though their understanding of it is fatally flawed and their methods for confronting it a double-edged sword. On the other hand, for those of us from socialist, anarchist and communist traditions, it can be a bit disorienting to see an avowedly socialist journal such as Jacobin spend nearly seven years effectively arguing against the existence of, much less the need to fight, fascism. And that editorial line, that fighting the right amounts to nothing but the ‘anti-fascism of fools’ and support for ‘lesser evilism’, is pervasive amongst many radicals. With a redefinition of fascism along the lines I suggest, we might better retool our collective resistance to fascists and capitalists and carve out some space for emancipatory struggles. I am still waiting for long overdue mea culpas from socialists with integrity on this question.
Lastly, there can be no effective, comprehensive and permanent solution to the recurring problem of fascism without a revolutionary socialist project. The anti-fascist struggle is an indispensable crucible for revolutionary socialists, anarchists and communists–or should be. This understanding of fascism is informed by a theoretical framework rooted within a revolutionary left tradition—but one that is frequently overlooked, dismissed and denigrated by patrician socialists. A key insight into the nature of the kind of fascism we face today can be grasped by looking at the nuanced relationship that often exists between the far right and more traditionally conservative power centers. That relationship has long been a matter of fierce debate. What I will argue is that fascism has always been a constitutive part of capitalism, even when in opposition to it, but that that relationship is contested, a ‘semi-permeable membrane’ in the words of Leonard Zeskind. What all this means is that capitalist democracies will not and, more importantly, cannot decisively defeat fascism; they share too much in common with it. As revolutionary socialists, anarchists and communists we recognize this inescapable fact of our current predicament: Our mortal enemy is fascism. It cannot be decisively defeated without us and we should be preparing for the sacrifices necessary for the successful prosecution of that struggle. If need be, we will come back from the grave to kick its sorry ass back down the street.
In order to assert a new definition of fascism, theorize a contemporary movement against it and do so within the revolutionary socialist tradition (to restate what I am going to tell you) a note on who I am, is perhaps in order.
I’ve always been somewhat of a ‘bad school boy’—a peculiar revolutionary, perhaps even a walking contradiction: an insolent socialist who questions the centrality of workers to the democratic revolution; an anarchist in a suit who eschews affinity groups and consensus; a communist who refuses to join a communist party. But I wouldn’t have it any other way, for from each there is the possibility of a world outside the tyranny of the market, of work and of bosses, of violence, exploitation and domination. But, if our dreams and desires are dismissed as the daydreams of the naive and therefore nightmares for everyone else, (what used to be called ‘utopianism’, now ‘aspirationalism’ in current parlance) our future will be frozen within a capitalist democracy that will forever fail to be a democratic capitalism, thereby engendering the eternal return of fascist reaction. There the radical coreligionist dreams of a democratic socialism, an emancipatory anarchism and a communism of the commons will break our teeth and souls on the rocks of racism, nationalism and war. Now, facing a rising tide and ferocious surf of neofascism, it is imperative that we consider the following proposition at the heart of my dispatch from the past: Perhaps the unfinished Antifascist Revolution can bring together these warring siblings and deliver us from our current impasse.
That’s what the Antifa means to me.
What keeps me up at night, however, is quite different. In forthcoming dispatches I will expand upon the following themes.
- The Sunkara Trap—There is little doubt that the most influential forum for socialist thought in the United States is the journal and blog called Jacobin. Founded in 2011 by its editor, Bhaskar Sunkara, Jacobin has played a foundational role in the welcome revival of socialist politics. So it should come as no surprise that within its pages, hidden in plain view, is the best articulated reason why the left shit the bed so completely in the run up to Donald Trump’s election to the U.S. presidency. Today Jacobin continues to refuse even the decency of a bedpan. Sunkara’s 2011 polemic, “A Thousand Platitudes: Liberal Hysteria and the Tea Party” argues that the best way for socialists to fight fascism is by channeling one’s inner Alexander Cockburn. That editorial line has been unceasing, sans any mea culpas, for going on seven years. It is disgraceful.
- Leonard Zeskind’s Baloney—Wherein the most important anti-fascist thinker and activist in living memory gets awarded a genius grant from the MacArthur Foundation, then no one bothers to read his book Blood and Politics: The History of the White Nationalist Movement, much less follow the fervent, yet often funny, exhortations contained within it. Lenny’s singular contributions have largely been misunderstood and unheeded. I will endeavor to rescue what I consider to be his most important insights, even when I disagree with them. That he has managed to say more about white nationalism and fascism through a fanciful exploration of the invention of baloney is perhaps indicative of the low standards to which the question of fascism has been treated by the left.
- The Political Geography of Fascism— A unique European and North American political phenomenon. Fascism has always had readily identifiable borders—physical, juridical and military and a white identity, and therefore racialized other, constructed around it.
- Shibboleths—The central shibboleth for the anti-racist left is that ‘race is a social construct’. Once this is noted, get busy organizing a union. But, as Barbara Fields notes in Race Craft: The Soul of Inequality In American Life, it too often serves as a beginning and endpoint for discussion, thereby obscuring the endurance of racecraft, or how racism helps reproduce inequality. For liberals, the problem of racism and fascism is couched in the shibboleths of diversity, tolerance and being opposed to hate. Contemporary anti-fascism should demand more from its adherents.
- A Definition, Not A Laundry List— From its earliest origins in the pitched street battles in Italy, fascism has had a seemingly contradictory history. Is it of the right or left? Is the most important question still whether fascism is a revolutionary or counterrevolutionary movement? What about fascism as a movement vs. fascism as a regime? Does fascism have a clear ideology, or is syncretism its hallmark? Is it a form of capitalist rule, or does it represent a movement outside of and opposed to capitalist rule? Is anti-Semitism a necessary ingredient in the fascist repertoire? Does fascism represent an intensification of racism and nationalism, or is it a different form of these ideologies? Does fascism only develop in opposition to an insurgent left? Indeed, the contributors to the Wikipedia entry on “Definitions of Fascism” seemingly throw up their hands: “What constitutes a definition of fascism and fascist governments is a highly disputed subject that has proven complicated and contentious. Historians, political scientists, and other scholars have engaged in long and furious debates concerning the exact nature of fascism and its core tenets.” (retrieved April 21, 2017). Any useful definition of fascism should identify the necessary ingredients that are required for a noxious stew to be called fascist, yet it must exclude those ingredients, or any combination thereof, that would make it something else.
- The MARS Motor— Wherein the Cold War-era sociologist Donald I. Warren in his book The Radical Center: Middle Americans and the Politics of Alienation, coins the term “Middle American Radicals”. Warren sought to capture the post civil rights era development of a self-consciously white dispossessed majority that saw itself caught between a cosmopolitan elite above and the poor, swarthy masses below. Unwittingly, Warren identified the signature double movement—fighting above and below—that needs to be present for something to rise to the threshold of being called fascist. I call it the ‘MARS Motor’ and when it is engaged fascists are on the move. It is the missing ingredient in most definitions of fascism. For, even when there is racist nationalism, militant storm troopers on the street and anti-Semitism functioning as a catalyst; when seemingly everything necessary and essential for something to be called fascist appears to be present, that particular constellation of forces will not be sufficient for it to be called fascist. The motor must kick in, otherwise it is garden variety right wing reaction, or even a particularly aggressive form of neoliberalism. Warren’s unit of analysis also foregrounds the importance of social class to any cogent definition of fascism without reducing it to an epiphenomenon–the proverbial tail wagging the dog as with so much scholarship that employs categories such as ‘petis bourgeoisie’, ‘downwardly mobile white working class’, or ‘finance capital’.
- Periodizing Fascism—Over the near century of its existence we can identify three major phases of fascist development–Classical, (1923–1945) Cold War (1945–1991) and 21st Century (2001—present). The gap between 1991 and 2001 is an interregnum. It would be useful to take a page from Regis Debray’s 2007 New Left Review article “Socialism: A Life Cycle” and map fascism along similar lines.
- Positive Patriotism, Negative Nationalism—The ‘populism’ of the Pink Tide is not exportable to the capitalist core, where it must contend with a political geography of white nationalism. In other words, there is no positive patriotism possible here or in Europe without negative nationalism. Witness the limits of celebrity atheletes refusing to pledge allegience. Podemos and La France Insoumise, Laclau and Mouffe, Corbynites and Democratic Socialists of America all essentially trade the Internationale for the Tricolor with predictable results: fascism continues its long march through the institutions that constitute its natural habitat.
- Fascism and the Zombie Horde—No, no, no. The zombies are us. They are always us. From George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead to the most complete expression of the zombie horror sub genre, World War Z, the zombies are us—its what happens to everyone who tries to exist outside of market relations—you die.
- Populism Here, Populism There, Populism Everywhere—Toss that fetid word-salad into the garbage. Originally mixed by cold war-era sociologists and political scientists, the term ‘populism’ is what you get when you no longer believe in a subject called ‘the people’. It refers to everything, therefore can explain nothing and has its utility limited to telling us something about the political baggage of who is using the term rather than anything about any referent it claims to denote.
- GOT Und Uber—How one cultural touchstone, the blood and soil soap opera, Game of Thrones and an economic one, the global ride share behemoth Uber, prefigure the rise of Donald Trump.