Within the Marxist library the bookshelf on fascism has always been somewhat neglected. Socialists in the Marxist tradition tend to understand fascism primarily through the lens of economics and the clash of classes. Following this fascism is often rendered as a political strategy resorted to by elements of a beleaguered ruling class so as to preserve their rule, and nothing but that. This presumes an insurgent left that poses a threat to that rule. No insurgent left, no fascism.
Anarchists problematize the state as a vector of fascism and capitalism and counterpose new social subjects as a way to ground their struggle within class by expanding the definition of class. Following lessons learned during the ‘premature antifascism’ of the Spanish Civil War, if your solution to fascism involves the dictatorship of the proletariat, it will be, at best, a temporary fix. Conversely, and perversely, once fascism gains a foothold, such a solution may become the only fix available.
Liberals tend to emphasize the emotional aspects of fascist rule, the personality traits and psychology of fascists and the difficulty of managing ‘race relations’ and promoting ‘cross-cultural’ tolerance. Antisemitism is understood as an accelerant to what is always considered the irrational kernel at the center of fascism, its rejection of capitalist democracy. Liberals are virtually incapable of theorizing a ‘field of compatibility’ between capitalism and fascism because they don’t understand history as a struggle between classes, however construed, but rather as a smooth unfolding of progress occasionally interrupted by the siren calls of extremism from the right or left. It’s preferred terms of reference are ‘populism’ and ‘liberal democracy’.
Conservatives focus on the similarities between communist and fascist totalitarianism, with an emphasis on the state, even going so far as to argue that classical fascism was a reaction to Soviet imperialism, a riff in another key on the orthodox Marxist approach.
From Trotsky and Gramsci, through Rajani Palme Dutt to Nicos Poulantzas, to Ernst Nolte and Jurgen Habermas and the ‘Historians Debate” through to Jonah Goldberg’s preposterous “liberal fascism” and Roger Griffin’s “palingenetic ultranationalism” of today, however one defines it, everyone agrees that fascism existed. What is more difficult to comprehend is that it also never left. It has always been with us. It is here with us today, stronger than yesterday. It must be fought.
Dylan Riley’s “What Is Trump?” (New Left Review no. 114, Nov./Dec. 2018) takes issue with analyses of fascism across the political spectrum, from conservative to “anarchist insurrectionist”. For Riley, who has a contribution or two on that Marxist bookshelf, the central problem common to all who ask and answer ‘the question of fascism’ today lies in flawed analogies drawn between classical fascism and various contemporary movements of the far right, in particular Trumpism.
“The typical rhetorical device they [analysts of fascism] deploy is to advance and protect the identification of Trump with fascism by way of nominal disclaimers of it.”
The effort to compare and contrast is valid, only “their analogies are rarely placed in a properly comparative and historical perspective,” he writes.
Riley attempts to correct this error by offering what I gather he thinks is a proper comparative and historical perspective on the question. After doing so, Riley wrongly concludes that fascism does not exist today as a discrete political threat. Unfortunately he has two problems with which he is ill equipped to deal.
First, as with most of the analysts he disagrees with, his operative definition of fascism, drawn exclusively from the classical era, is flawed. His definition omits key terms necessary for apprehending fascism in any era.
Second, and also in common with most of the analysts he disagrees with, he will proceed, flawed definition in hand, one hundred years ‘back to the future’, skipping everything in between, to wrongly conclude that fascism is not a threat in 2019; that whatever Trump and Trumpism are, the ‘fascist’ label obscures more than it reveals and rather than the further development of fascism within the American body politic, this latest iteration of the far right might just be “a shot of adrenaline” to it.
I think it’s a shot of crystal meth.
What Riley is arguing is that Trump and Trumpism don’t represent anything different from routine capitalist rule; therefore, the general socialist project can continue as is without significant adjustments made for a new threat.
“Move along,” Riley seems to say, “nothing new here”.
His conclusion is driven by the purpose he believes fascism must always serve, rather than the conditions from which it derives that shape its nature. Marxists used to critique this as a ‘teleological argument’ but I guess in regards fascism it is given a pass. After all, it’s a pretty small shelf.
In any case this whole project of drawing analogies between classical fascism and whatever it is one thinks we are confronted with today is itself wrong-headed.
The yardstick is the problem; so too what you think you are measuring.
First, that pesky definition.
Riley doesn’t offer a formal definition of fascism, but he does write this:
“In sum, the interwar fascist regimes were a product of inter-imperial warfare and capitalist crisis, combined with a revolutionary threat from the left.”
All of which begs the question: What then is that “product”? Riley uses four comparative axes to tease out an answer.
These are “…geopolitical context, economic crisis, relations of class and nation and, finally, the character of civil society and of political parties.”
Having explored the global conditions and comparative axes within which fascism first developed Riley then turns to the sociologist Max Weber and his three forms of rule (the charismatic, patrimonial and bureaucratic) for a more focused treatment of Trump. This is probably the best section of Riley’s article where the contradictions between Trump’s style of rule and the ‘legal-rational’ state are made clear, but it tells us next to nothing about fascism in any era.
Riley’s unfortunate use of the term “product” further suggests that fascism is assembled, as a toaster or automobile, rather than emerges within history as a political and social movement. Here he is again confusing the conditions that structure the nature and political horizons of classical fascism for classical fascism itself. Using only the conceptual framework and terms on offer by Riley, one cannot grasp the nature of fascism. This approach to the question of fascism has a long and inglorious history, best exemplified by a recent precursor with whom I’m sure Riley is familiar.
“The Sunkara Trap” is my term of reference for the intellectual cul-de-sac entered into when one accepts the framework for argument about fascism put forward in an article by Jacobin founder and editor Bhaskar Sunkara, first published in the socialist journal New Politics in June, 2011. Coming on the heals of the tea party rebellion and just prior the Occupy movement, “A Thousand Platitudes: Liberal Hysteria and the Tea Party” was essentially the inaugural long form essay for Jacobin Magazine and Blog.
Sunkara made his bones with it.
The key argument made by Sunkara regarding the Tea Party and the left is as follows:
“The American left’s response to grassroots activity on the right has historically been punctuated by hysteria, exaggeration, and appeals to the coercive power of the state….Furthermore, an alternative reading of the Tea Party will be offered, a movement that is not fascistic, racist, nor particularly novel, but rather a new expression of a venerable American right-wing populist tradition.”
Drawing on critics of left identity politics such as Walter Benn Michaels, Ken Silverstein and the late and hapless (on fascism) Alexander Cockburn, Sunkara blasts the antiracist liberal-left for engaging in electoral theatre that abandons class analysis, thereby leaving regimes of accumulation intact. Its antiracism is so cynical it helps prop up ‘the other capitalist party’ through the ‘antifascism of fools’.
Sunkara’s key argument on fascism is this:
“Though many of its shock-troops have come from lumpenproletarian elements, fascism has historically been a petit-bourgeois movement that can only be understood within the context of a militant left. German and Italian fascists disrupted strikes and physically attacked left-wing meetings. This historically specific brand of reaction implies that there was a vibrant workers’ movement challenging capitalist class rule, forcing elements of those on top to attempt to gamble on empowering the fascists in order to ultimately preserve the existing class structure. The American left is a marginalized and besieged political force, not exactly ready to storm the barricades.”
Sunkara’s dismissal of the tea party uprising of that time was met with some dissent, as the article in New Politics was accompanied by critiques from the late Marvin and Betty Mandell that, while spirited, unfortunately largely reinforced the dynamics of the trap.
Here’s an interesting thought experiment. What kind of definition of fascism could one construct without the use of the following terms?
Not a very useful or accurate one.
All of these terms should feature prominently in any discussion of fascism; none of them are discussed, much less developed by the two authors. Why?
For Sunkara this is fairly straightforward. All of those terms above no longer have any saliency within a form of 21st century capitalism (globalism) that embraces diversity of identities all the while enforcing class division. It does this without having to resort to the crass prejudices of bygone eras. Structural forms of discrimination exist, but they only serve to divide workers. They have no internal logic apart from this. Vigilante forms of racist violence, for instance, are also by definition a part of the past. The capable administrators of American capitalism are clever; they would never resort to such measures unless…you got it, there was an insurgent left. There is no insurgent left. Therefore there is no fascism. And so on.
Sunkara’s dismissal of the American racist right and his defense of the Tea Party are so blind that he ends up needlessly and callously impugning the integrity of civil rights icon John Lewis. In what should be regarded as his ‘Black Face Moment’, Sunkara treats insults hurled at Lewis by tea party militants as “alleged” expressions of “bigotry.” Now, I don’t care that Sunkara describes Lewis as a “doyen” of the liberal establishment, but if the veteran civil rights activist says Tea Party assholes were yelling “nigger” at him, I’ll take him at his word. Elsewhere in his article Sunkara uses the term “race relations”, a sure sign that he is out of his element here. He should stick to explications of the clever triangulating of Kautsky.
Nothing Sunkara has written in the past eight years remotely suggests he has changed this basic theoretical framework. The entire socialist project of Jacobin Magazaine and Blog has continued to reproduce this anemic debate; that project has been compromised as a result. For Sunkara, Trump and the Tea Party before him are merely excretions of capitalist rule and to fight them is to ignore “the true stakeholders of power.” It would seem to be a simple corrective to fight both, but the problem is deeper, more entrenched, and potentially disastrous. Moving from this set of presumptions about the nature of and prospects for contemptorary fascism directly to the democratic socialism of the Bernie Sanders 2020 Campaign means follies from the past, and those yet to be committed, will likely adversely effect the left.
For Riley these terms are subsumed within treatments of what he calls the inversion of nation/class relations, civil society and the interplay between economics and culture. Trump’s “racist messaging and general boorishness” is about as detailed a discussion of racism or white nationalism to be found here. They are addressed, in other words, through these larger conceptual constructs which actually have no room for them at all. For instance, after describing an American population that resembles that famous “sack of potatoes” described by Marx, and therefore ill suited for fascist mass mobilization, Riley then argues that if Americans are mobilized at all it will be “on the defensive basis of protectionist nationalism, rather than yet further imperial aggression.” Increasingly, in an era of neofascist mobilization, this is a distinction without a difference.
In a bizarre passage he also claims: “In the us today, a pro-globalist professional layer is pitted against a ‘nationalist’ white working class—a configuration that is almost the opposite to that of interwar fascism.” How to even untangle this? I think Riley is saying that professional layers during classical fascism tended to be nationalist as opposed to worker movements that were internationalist. This syllogism only works if by “globalist” one means “internationalist”. Globalism is not the equivalent, during any era, of socialist internationalism. What is the point of highlighting such a difference, manufactured though it may be, if not to accentuate his claim that fascism no longer exists in any meaninful way? What then is the logical conclusion from all of this? Do not fight fascism because it doesn’t exist.
Here is Riley again on Trump’s appeal: “Here it would be futile to separate ‘cultural’ from ‘economic’ issues: the two are inextricably linked. To the extent that Trump’s economic-nationalist agenda had a popular basis, it rested on workers and middle-class layers who had suffered from the offshoring of jobs and who feared competition from immigrants in employment, rather than welcoming them as a cheap source of labour.”
Notwithstanding his own disclaimer, notice how quickly the ‘cultural’ becomes the ‘economic’, entirely unrelated to that unending, unfiltered and noxious racist bile that has issued forth from ’45’ to his 56 million followers on Twitter.
What Sunkara and Riley both don’t understand is that when mobs of white people organize to attack migrants or scream racist epithets at Black people they are not only ‘protecting their jobs’ by responding to labor competition, they are engaging in activity that builds white identity and thereby fascism. When they attack George Soros it’s not just because he’s a billionaire, its because he’s a Jew. Soros can, of course, take care of himself, but we need to take care of the Nazis who hate him. Not for Soros, but for us.
There is a continuum along which this set of ideas ranges, blending into one another. From macro-economists who blather about ‘advanced economies’ to political scientists who wax nostalgic about the roots of democracy in ‘the west’; to neo-cons and their ‘western civilization’ to modern day culture warriors and their ‘christian west’; then onwards to what makes the west a civilization–whiteness–and the ‘organicism’ espoused by the neo-Nazis of Generation Identity. There is a political geography here within which whiteness embodies a key set of ideas that increasingly structures politics, economics and culture. It becomes the key reference point for many white people. It is no longer confined to the margins, it is transforming the mainstream.
Sunkara and Riley fail to theorize a relationship between capitalism and fascism that can account for the semi-independent nature of fascism as a mass movement. Riley hints at the fluid nature of fascism in its movement stages by alluding to a “field of compatibility” that existed between conservatism and classical fascism. But he quickly dispenses with this in his discussion of Trump. I prefer the term ‘semipermeable membrane’, something veteran antifascists have endeavored to monitor as an index to the development of fascism. Such political activity is not the same as routine expressions of racism, homophobia and sexism that undoubtedly characterize all forms of capitalism, even the most “advanced”. It represents something different.
Back to that pesky definition.
No definition of fascism that excludes the above referenced terms could possibly be cogent or complete; only misleading. Any definition of fascism that does include the above referenced terms is not, however, necessarily complete either; one needs a theoretical model that accounts for capitalism and fascism. Jacobin and New Left Review should be indispensable tools for doing as much. They have both largely abdicated this responsibility.
Here I will sketch out an alternative definition of fascism and periodize that definition so as to track it over time and space. I wrote ‘sketch’, so cut me some slack.
Fascism, in all its forms, across different continents and over the span of almost one-hundred years always involves an ideology rooted in racism and nationalism. Its most articulate exponents and most dedicated opponents know this. There is no point in engaging with any definition of fascism that excludes this remarkably simple observation.
Fascism has its vital center in a political geography located throughout the capitalist core. I call it the ‘white belt’. In order to understand this leftists must integrate the concepts of a ‘North/South’ divide and a core/periphery with that of a class analysis. Anti-immigrant racism has as much to do with expressions of whiteness as with labor competition. One cannot understand ‘white nationalism’ without untangling this and the tripartite concept of ‘Race-Class-Gender’, sometimes expressed through the term ‘intersectionalism’, should provide some answers. New Left Review, through its first editor, Stuart Hall, was founded in part to articulate a brand of Marxism that could do as much.
The social base of fascism is best captured through the metaphor of a marriage between the Christian Right and white nationalism which crosses class lines yet remains a mirror of the hierarchies that exist between those social classes. In other words there are fewer doctors and lawyers who are fascists principally because there are fewer doctors and lawyers in any given capitalist society. The social base of fascism cannot be counted, as beans in a jar, only understood in relation to the other aspects of its definition. But you can count on professionals and other fascists of means (Mercer, McInnes, Bannon, et. al.) accounting for an outsize share of their leadership.
Lastly fascism has a motor, what I call ‘the fight above and below.’ This motor must be engaged for a social movement to be reasonably characterized as fascist; this is what gives fascism it’s potentially popular, or mass basis. This ‘fight above and below’ is not a feint, or cynical ploy. It is real. While I agree with Riley that “fascist societies unquestionably remained capitalist societies” they also supercharged the racist, nationalist and imperialist elements of those capitalist societies. They do this in their movement and regime phases.
The last element of my definition involves periodizing it. Fascism has existed throughout three distinct eras. It can be characterized by what has ‘overdetermined’ its parameters, or political horizons, during each of these eras.
Classical Fascism (1921–1945)
Riley correctly identifies the major set of conditions that drove and shaped fascism in the classical era: capitalist crisis, inter-imperialist conflict, an insurgent left. But he misses the key concepts of racism, whiteness and the division between the global north and south.
Cold War Fascism (1945-1990)
Here fascism became the bastard step child of capitalism through the role it played in the anticommunist consensus. Christopher Simpson’s Blowback and Russ Bellant’s Old Nazis, the New Right and the Republican Party are required reading on this era. Where fascism thrived in Latin America, e.g., Argentina (1976-1983), Brazil (1964-1985; 2018-?) Guatemala (1954-1997) it is marked by a genocidal racism clearly inherited from its colonial past.
21st Century Fascism (2010-?)
While the Cold War is understood to have ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union, it is equally important to recall that this was accompanied by claims of ‘the end of history’. Few analysts of capitalism or fascism anticipated an expansion of the political horizons for fascism during the years following the end of the Cold War. Most assumed it would pass into the garbage bin of history. Instead, in retrospect, that time period was a crucible within which fascism was reinvigorated. With the ‘Great Recession’ of 2007-2010 it has vigorously shaken itself, much like a wet dog emerging from a rainstorm; no longer on a short leash, it is on the hunt covering terrain previously out of reach.
An expanded and modified framework for understanding this sweeping periodization might be constructed following ideas popularized by Immanuel Wallerstein. Capitalism cannot be theorized without reference to a ‘global north and south’ and a ‘core and periphery’. Neither can fascism.
To illustrate the flaw inherent to analogies that proceed directly from Classical fascism to the present, let’s turn to Chumbawamba and their 1994 anthem, The Day The Nazi Died (the Nazi is Rudolph Hess).
We’re told that after the war
The Nazis vanished without a trace
But battalions of fascists
Still dream of a master race
The history books they tell
Of their defeat in ’45
But they all came out of the woodwork
On the day the Nazi died
They say the prisoner at Spandau
Was a symbol of defeat
Whilst Hess remained imprisoned
The fascists they were beat
So the promise of an Aryan world
Would never materialize
So why did they all come out of the woodwork
On the day the Nazi died?
The world is riddled with maggots
The maggots are getting fat
They’re making a tasty meal of all
The bosses and bureaucrats
They’re taking over the boardrooms
And they’re fat and full of pride
And they all came out of the woodwork
On the day the Nazi died
So if you meet with these historians
I’ll tell you what to say
Tell them that the Nazis
Never really went away
They’re out there burning houses down
And peddling racist lies
And we’ll never rest again
Until every Nazi dies
Sunkara and Riley both extrapolate from a definition of classical fascism that is flawed not least because it omits or downplays key categories necessary for defining it. With flawed definition in hand, they then do what virtually everyone else does: proceed directly to the present, skipping Cold War fascism.
From here they will have difficulty understanding 21st Century Fascism, which began around 2010. The twenty years between the end of the Cold War and the beginning of 21st Century fascism is an interregnum, which I will explain in another article.
Riley has his own blind spot on display when he is discussing what animates the former attorney general, Jeff Sessions. “Sessions’s anti-immigrant fanaticism is rooted in a theory of us development over the past ninety years or so. According to him, the massive inequalities of the Gilded Age were an expression of uncontrolled immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe. With the passage of the National Origins Act of 1924, the European population was assimilated, becoming a homogeneous white working and middle class—the foundation for us world power and domestic tranquility in the twentieth century.”
To use Riley’s own turn of phrase, such a political philosophy could plausibly be cast in white nationalist terms.
The “extreme form of hybridity” Riley assigns to Trump is a feature of fascism, as well as a style of rule. Fascism scrambles familiar categories of the liberal and conservative thought world precisely because it insists upon white identity. The civil becomes the ethnic state (birtherism, attacks on the 14th Amendment, the border becomes a wall), economics is increasingly rendered as cultural (black crime imperils white neighborhoods, immigration undermines community cohesion, trade protectionism expresses a desire to care for one’s own), etc. It must do this because what drives fascism–racism, nationalism and the fight above and below–cannot be carried forward within traditional modes of capitalist command and control; they are not the same, although there is a great deal of overlap between them.
This is fascism in its movement stage.
How to account for this? In a footnote on NSDAP voting and membership data, Riley acknowledges the problem of identifying fascism in its movement stage: “…whether voting behaviour is a good indicator of the ‘social basis’ of fascism is an important question.” At least he recognizes the need to account for fascism in its early stages. But, as with so many others, he throws up his hands because it is apparently too difficult a task. It isn’t.
Here’s an example of what I mean drawn from yet another missed opportunity, this time from our preeminent political prognosticator, Nate Silver. In February of 2016, following breathless articles in the New York Times about disturbing levels of racism polled throughout the American South, Silver led a befuddled group of his colleagues in an attempt to address this. “Elections Podcast: Racism Among Trump’s Supporters” was the first time Silver, or probably any of his colleagues, used the term ‘white nationalism’. Their unfamiliarity with the term, together with no particular follow through, opened a window through which to view the more general failure to anticipate the election victory of Trump. Aside from Michael Moore, most liberals and leftists failed as well. Again, the key term here is ‘white nationalism’.
Near the end of his article, Riley, having thus far successfully eschewed the term ‘populism’, then renders to it that which must be denied: analytical legitimacy. Trump, Riley argues, may not be any kind of fascist per se, but he exhibits ‘traits’ of the authoritarian and populist. Ugh.
About that “shot of adrenaline”. Here’s the full quote:
“In the 2018 congressional elections, there is no doubt that Trump bore much responsibility for a result unprecedented over the past fifty years—a 49 per cent turnout in a midterm. In this basic sense, Trump’s ascendancy has not resulted in the erosion of American democracy, but rather acted as a shot of adrenaline to a moribund system. Can the left succeed in turning this new terrain to its advantage?”
Yes, perhaps. But what will determine success or failure? If that “shot of adrenaline” turns out to be crystal meth the need for a vibrant, grassroots, militant antifascism will be essential to countering whatever new monstrosities are unleashed. The time for that is before such abominations gain a foothold.
What is it then that Sunkara and Riley prescribe?
More of the same.
Today while the left may not be a roaring tiger, it is certainly no longer a mewling kitten. Democratic socialism is on the lips of millions, but so is white nationalism. By their own logic Sunkara and Riley should understand this. So long as they deny even the existence of contemporary fascism, they will unwittingly hobble our efforts to both confront and offer an alternative to it.
Neither Sunkara nor Riley have anything to say about antifascism, much less the Antifa. It should be noted that the two signature tactics used by today’s antifascists in the United States–doxxing and deplatforming –have effectively crippled the further development of mass fascism. Antifascists throughout the global north deserve support–theoretical and political defense, legal aid, funding and platters of brownies. Where is it?
Last November, after Trump singled out the Antifa for attack by “cops, soldiers and tough guys” there were no statements of solidarity forthcoming from the left. Perhaps the International Socialist Organization or Democracy Now! stood up, but it wasn’t enough. Antifascists should not be hung out to dry; their accomplishments left for academics, ‘anti hate centers’, celebrities or the SPLC to cannabalize. The left needs an independent antifascist effort from the left and below, rooted in the red and the black. It has this in the Antifa, but it needs the political and theoretical defense necessary for continued development. Such efforts should be supported by comrades in positions to do so.
I have been terse, even harsh, with Jacobin and New Left Review. But I want to be clear: These are two of the most important journals I go to for theoretical and political clarity.
I’m yelling at you because I care.
In 2019 there is a growing sense among fascists that what they fight for is not a narrow nationalism, but a transcontinental ‘whiteness’ that stretches from Western Europe east through Russia, onwards to Canada and the United States. In this scenario the threat from Russia is not principally from its ‘authoritarian’ nature, but from its increasing alignment with a fascist international in formation. This ‘white belt’ cannot be understood within a framework of analysis that amounts to a ‘white out’. The solution, as always, is a hybrid of communist and anarchist ideas–the red and the black.