by Claire Bayler and Jai Chavis
If you’ve been to a protest in the last four years, you’ve probably seen at least one sign saying “No Trump! No KKK! No fascist USA.” Amidst increasing right-wing violence, like the 2017 battle in Charlottesville, the right-wing militia shootings in Kenosha, WI, and the recent plot to kidnap the governor of Michigan, many liberal and left activists correctly want to fight back against the right. The effort to get organized has raised the question of the role of the Trump administration and its relationship to the far-right, including the question of whether Trump and his administration are fascists. The mobilization of federal law enforcement, including the Department of Homeland Security against Portland anti-racist protesters, resulted in broad daylight kidnappings of protestors in unmarked vehicles. Trump has repeatedly attacked the election process on Twitter as a way of regaining electoral ground lost when the economy crashed. News broke in September of forced sterilization of immigrant and refugee women carried out in the concentration camps run by ICE and DHS. Trump and his administration have used their position to carry out extremely reactionary measures and increase authoritarianism. So what tactics and analysis does the left need to organize the fightback against Trump’s administration and the small but emboldened fascist groups?
The upsurge in Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests sparked by George Floyd’s murder by the Minneapolis police has revealed a clear, intense polarization of US society. Though often ignored by the corporate media, mass protests of working people of all backgrounds, races, and nationalities have shaken US cities in the largest resurgence of the anti-racist movement since the civil rights movement. Immense protests have sprung up periodically throughout the years of the Trump Administration in response to attacks on working people. Three million people mobilized during the first Women’s March the day after Trump’s inauguration. 40,000 anti-fascist protestors flooded Boston’s streets to shut down an alt-right rally that was held in the aftermath of the Charlottesville Unite the Right protest and murder of anti-fascist protester Heather Hayer.
This polarization has intensified as the global economy tipped over the edge of a long-anticipated financial crash. The COVID-19 pandemic has made it starkly clear that capitalism is incapable of preparing for or responding to crises in a manner that promotes the well-being of the majority of society. The rushed re-opening of economies and schools is causing a predictable and deadly resurgence of infection cases.
The growing characterization of Trump as a fascist is just one more symptom of an economic and political system that is rapidly losing legitimacy in the eyes of working people and youth. The capitalist class has split and partially abandoned Trump. Although Trump championed their interests with spectacular success through the corporate COVID bailout and the 2017 tax bill, he’s now deemed too unpredictable and polarizing to pull US capitalism back from the brink of social explosion.
Right-wing groups, emboldened by Trump’s bigoted rhetoric, have appeared with increasing visibility. Heavily armed right-wing protestors, funded by big business with connections to Congress and the White House, occupied the Michigan State House to force an end to the stay-at-home orders. Their protest faced no police escalation, standing in stark contrast to the brutal repression of mostly unarmed and peaceful anti-racist protesters.
Meanwhile, workers are losing faith in the two corporate parties or the perceived impact of voting at all as the 2020 election cycle trudges on. The Democratic Party is running Biden’s campaign on a message of “anyone but Trump” because they have no greater interest in presenting a real alternative such as universal healthcare (not even during a global pandemic!), job and income guarantees (as mass layoffs continue), or reforms to combat systemic police racism and violence (amidst mass anti-racist protests). The mass nature of the anti-racist protests and the increase in workplace actions indicates that the working class, both organized and unorganized sections, are moving into struggle in rejection of the attempts to make us pay for the most recent capitalist crisis. The organized right-wing may be loud and visible, but they represent only a small fraction of society. They are outnumbered by the number of workers and youth who turn out to protest police brutality, the corporate bailouts, and attacks on democratic rights. Though the organized left is a shadow of its former self, sections of the working class are stirring, moving into struggle, and striving towards socialist ideas as they fight back against right-wing attacks.
Is This Fascism?
Does the right-wing militia shooting in Kenosha and Trump’s twitter challenges of the 2020 election process signal that the US is facing an active fascist takeover? How do we most effectively fight back against far-right ideas and violence? The question of a fascist regime and how the workers’ movement responds is crucial. Marxists answer such questions with a scientific analysis of the social forces at play, not based on surface-level rhetoric or repressive government tactics.
Fascism is a mass movement of reaction, resting on a misleadership of the economic anxieties and worsening conditions of the downwardly mobile middle class in a period of profound capitalist crisis and uncertainty. This section of society is duped into blaming oppressed social groups and anti-capitalist activists for the crises of the pandemic, wage and job cuts, poverty, etc. that are in fact the direct result of capitalism. The immediate aim of fascism is to liquidate, through brutal and deadly force, the organizations of the working class, especially unions and left political parties, in a desperate attempt by the capitalist class to use terror and dictatorship to defend capitalism from the perception or reality of imminent socialist revolution.
However, the capitalists only find the opening to mobilize a violent mass movement of the middle class and disaffected workers through reactionary appeals to racism and nationalism when the worker’s movement has failed to demonstrate its power and organize a strong enough movement to resolve the crises faced by the majority of society under capitalism. Naziism came to power in Germany with the support of the state and capitalist class only after the German working class had heroically risen up in revolution, but failed to seize power from the capitalists. The capitalists took advantage of defeated revolutionary movements in the 1920s and the failure of new revolutionary movements to stop Hitler and the Nazis from gaining and consolidating power. The German capitalists unleashed fascist gangs to smash the workers’ organizations and ensured the outbreak of World War II. The great tragedies of the revolutionary periods in Italy (1919-20), Germany (1918-23), and Spain (1936-39) are the mistakes made by Social Democratic and Stalinist leaderships who turned away from the opportunities for socialist revolutions and defeating fascist movements in Europe prior to World War II.
Trump has inflicted state violence on protestors, refugees and immigrants, LGBTQ+ people, women, and other targets of his attacks. Workers organizations, especially unions, in the US have lost much of their former confidence and strength thanks to the decline of left influence in unions and the misleadership of the union bureaucracy. While growing sections of the rank-and-file want to fight back, labor leaders are reluctant to mobilize the full force of the union membership and union resources to fight for anti-racist policies, against the COVID economic attacks, and in support of the needs of the entire working class like universal healthcare. Instead, union leaders waste dues and any membership activism on supporting the corporate-controlled Democratic Party, binding them hand and foot to a capitalist party.
U.S. capitalists are not yet facing a crisis where their traditional tools such as the police, the Supreme Court, and the two-party political system are unable to cope with the current level of the worker’s movement or to cope with a new, mass socialist movement (which has not yet emerged). While financially supporting far-right protests, such as the Michigan Statehouse occupation, the capitalists, including Trump, have not yet moved to mobilize vast sections of the downtrodden middle class in the streets to attack anti-racist protestors or union workplaces. The right populism of Trump and his administration doesn’t represent the ruling class resorting to a last-ditch fascist movement, even if Trump does pay lip service to semi-fascist forces in order to try to maintain far-right votes in the upcoming election. Trump’s call for the Proud Boys to “stand by” when pressed at the first 2020 presidential debate was quickly retracted in the face of uproar, evidence that Trump and the Republicans are not at all ready or interested in supporting real fascism at this stage.
Similarly, while Trump is pushing forward attacks on our hard-won democratic rights, we are still able to organize for an alternative, in public, with open campaigns. Socialists fight to defend and extend our democratic rights while raising the inadequate nature of democracy under capitalism. How can real democracy exist in a system where the tiny capitalist class controls both the political and economic systems, including building into the government many undemocratic practices that prevent direct democracy? It is only thanks to these undemocratic practices that Trump “won” the election in the first place—he has never had a popular mandate from a majority of U.S. society and, in fact, lost the popular vote in 2016. Trump was only elected by a little more than one-quarter of voting-age Americans—many of whom voted for his populism in rejection of the neoliberal attacks carried out by Obama, a supposedly “progressive” Democrat, rather than in favor of Trump’s bigotry. The election of right-wing politicians does not automatically indicate that the majority of society holds right-wing beliefs.
Why does the distinction of Trump being a right-populist rather than a fascist matter if Trump is still a far-right threat? Does it really matter whether or not Trump technically fits the label of fascist? Marxists recognize that political differences mean tactical differences in how the workers’ movement must respond. In the face of fascism, history has proven that it is crucial that the working class and its varied organizations draw together to face the threat. United fronts of socialist and left groups, independent of capitalist organizations, is how fascism is defeated.
Fascism and right-populism are often confused, and this is perfectly understandable as they often overlap in rhetoric. But the distinctions between these two forces make major political differences. This does not at all preclude right-populism from being a serious threat to the working class: it must be dealt with and defeated before it can develop a more significant base. In other words, right-populism is a major threat to specially oppressed sections of the working class and to the entire workers’ and socialist movement. Trump, right populists, and scattered, small fascist groups are not politically powerful enough to launch mass fascist gangs or fascist political parties as happened in Europe in the early to mid-20th century. Fascism was used then by the capitalist class to terrorize the organized working class and the left through totalitarian repression and genocide on a mass scale. Defeating the right-wing now is an important step in preventing the development of a fascist movement in the U.S.
How to Defeat the Right
The working class has the power to shut down the far-right by mobilizing to counter their protests and physical attacks. The 40,000 anti-fascist protestors who out-organized the tiny alt-right rally in Boston in 2017 taught this lesson to a new generation. Three million people marching nationwide for women’s rights seriously challenged the stability of Trump’s first months in office and the viability of his presidency. It was the working class that defeated Trump’s initial Muslim Ban attempt by occupying airports and organizing taxi and Uber drivers to withhold their labor. Capitalist profit depends upon racism, nationalism, sexism, homophobia, and all forms of oppression, and is incapable of resolving these issues that it continues to benefit from. Ultimately the struggle against right-wing ideas and violence, including the anti-fascist struggle, is a struggle for socialism that overthrows these oppressive ideas and systems. Every material gain we fight for and win today— such as universal healthcare, job guarantees, and a living wage— can bring people into the struggle for socialism and chip away at the discontent among workers and the middle class, including some who might be drawn towards right-populists like Trump.
Trump may not be a fascist, but he clearly poses a serious threat to the working class. Yet the Democratic Party fails to meaningfully challenge the attacks of the Trump administration. The Democrats claim to challenge his racism with a “law and order” presidential campaign consisting of a pair of candidates who’ve ardently supported the racist mass incarceration system over their decades-long careers. Biden, Harris, and the Democratic Party ultimately represent the same capitalist interests as Trump and enforce the same neoliberal austerity attacks on working-class living standards. The Democratic Party repeatedly paves the way for Trump-like figures to rise to prominence by implementing or failing to challenge corporate policies that drive down living standards. The Democratic Party provides no political leadership or alternatives as a way out of economic and social crises constantly re-emerging under capitalism.
Neither the Democratic Party nor the state as a whole can be relied on to defeat the small but significant violent far-right forces emboldened by Trump. The Democrats will tell the workers movement to “vote blue” then wait patiently for ineffectual legislation to be passed. This only drives down the living conditions for workers which deepens the hold of right-wing ideas. Obama ran for president in 2008 on the promise of universal healthcare which, if delivered, would have fundamentally changed the current desperate COVID situation. His bailout of Wall Street, not workers, also paved the way for another round of mass disillusionment in the Democratic Party and US government—some of which has radicalized workers to the left. But in the absence of a political party for working people, independent of big business, the policies and false promises of the Democratic Party inspired some people to vote for Trump in 2016 because of his anti-establishment rhetoric.
The capitalist state—Congress, the police, the legal system, local governments, etc.—finds the potential power of a fighting workers movement, including peaceful mass protests, to be a greater threat to them than even armed right-wing occupations. The state will mobilize the national guard and military-grade weaponry against unarmed Black Lives Matter protesters but fraternize peacefully with armed reopening protestors. Since we cannot trust the government or two corporate parties to help workers without mass pressure applied, we need an organization that will represent and organize a political alternative to apply such pressure. With an independent left party, we can organize these mass movements, draw together unions and progressive organizations, run candidates, and fill the political vacuum that is otherwise filled by the far-right.
The struggle against semi-fascistic forces today, when they are a tiny minority with no real social base, is primarily a political struggle. Vulnerable middle-class folks and workers are looking for answers to the unending crises of society. The COVID crisis has only sharpened this process. Without a strong, organized left-wing, the political vacuum is filled by absurd far-right ideas as seen, for example, in the rise of the conspiracy group QAnon. This is not just a tactical question but a practical one—the best antifascist struggle is the socialist struggle!
The current BLM uprising represents a crucial opportunity to build a mass anti-racist and anti-fascist movement. The success of the initial protests in Minneapolis and elsewhere shows that, when masses of working people and youth mobilize, we can push back both the police and right-wing forces. The best deterrent for right-wing violence is a tightly organized and disciplined movement of oppressed communities and the broader working class that demonstrate the fascists have little or no social support. This movement must help fill oppressed communities, as part of the broader working class, with the confidence to defend themselves, actively fight for demands that will better our lives, and coordinate to build a mass defense on the ground against right-wing counter-protestors, provocateurs, and police violence.
A key first step is to build community committees in which active members of the movement can come together to democratically discuss the best tactics and strategy, develop a coherent political program to organize and advance the struggle, discuss how to best organize self-defense against police and right-wing violence, and coordinate efforts across cities, regions, and the country!
Similarly, the labor movement must energetically take up the anti-racist movement because an injury to one is an injury to all! The working class is incredibly diverse and we cannot allow the capitalist class to exploit us all by setting us against each other, whether along lines of race, religion, nationality, or any other lines of division. Union members should organize for their local and national organizations to defend against racism in the workplace, adopt anti-racist resolutions including supporting universal healthcare and other political issues, and turn out their rank-and-file members to support protests including with stewarding, legal, and financial aid. If the current union leadership refuses to meaningfully take up the anti-racist struggle, then rank-and-file workers must organize to elect new anti-racist leadership. The rank-and-file should also organize for their unions to break decisively with the Democratic Party. Union dues must stop paying for openly anti-union and racist candidates like Biden, who wines and dines with infamous union busters. Unions should join the effort to build an independent left party in the US. The Democratic Party has long wooed the union bureaucracy because they know a decisive break of the unions and voters for an independent left party would be an unprecedented challenge to the political status quo.
We must use this time of social crisis and mass disillusionment to begin the hard work of constructing a party of our own. A left workers party helps us to organize an alternative to the austerity politics of the Democratic and Republican parties, undercutting the precarious conditions that make layers of the working and middle class susceptible to far-right ideas. A new workers party can convene serious discussions and debates about tactics to counter far-right organizing, call mass protests and strikes, run issue-based campaigns and candidates, and help movements and oppressed communities organize for self-defense. The Independent Socialist Group would help build and be a part of such a broader party and organize for it to take up socialist policies as a step toward overturning the capitalist system. By uniting the working class against our common exploiters, we can share out the wealth hoarded by the tiny capitalist class—wealth that we create!—instead of continuing to fight each other over scraps.
The first step towards such a party is for voters and organizations to refuse to vote for or endorse Democratic party candidates. Trump is a serious threat to workers, but Biden helped lay the grounds for Trump’s election during his term as Vice President and his decades in Congress. Biden cannot stop the far-right, police, or state violence because his party cannot resolve the underlying crises of capitalism. Just as Obama strengthened the surveillance state and deportation machine, did nothing to stop further police militarization and expansion of mass incarceration, and increased economic inequality; a Biden presidency offers no meaningful change for working people. We can take the first steps towards building a mass workers party by campaigning and voting for the strongest independent left candidates. As we build a viable alternative, more workers, youth, and organizations will rally around the independent pole of attraction that we establish. Howie Hawkins and Angela Walker are the only candidates on most ballots running for universal healthcare (during a global pandemic), running for a socialist Green New Deal (during one of the worst West Coast wildfire seasons on record), and explicitly helping to build the independent political power of the working class. The Independent Socialist Group has called for a vote for Hawkins and Walker and encourages other progressive organizations to join and help build the campaign.
Fight the Far Right with Socialism
Our advantage today is that far-right violence lacks a serious social base. But that base will grow if a serious left alternative does not organize to address the crises that workers face today. A serious left alternative will not be organized by supporting Biden or other capitalist politicians responsible for the current situation. Short of a sustained progressive or left mass movement and the threat of a left political alternative, the two corporate parties have no need to support pro-worker policies. Nor will the far-right be defeated by individuals beating up fascists. We have to organize to make sure no fascist groups are able to use any public space. We need to help organize mass groups of working people into active defense of protest movements, union actions, strikes, or occupations. We must be prepared through collective action to drown out and deny platforms to genuine fascist forces that rear their head—no matter how small—to prevent them from organizing, growing, and spreading their anti-human ideas. Really fighting the right and smashing fascism includes building an independent working-class party that fights for a working-class, anti-racist program that can draw vulnerable workers away from reactionary ideas and help dismantle the economic and social conditions that engender far-right tendencies. We can and must do battle with the forces of reaction in the immediate term to defend and extend the rights and conditions of workers. But reaction will only cease to rear its head when capitalist interests defending inequality, exploitation, and oppression are cut out root and stem through building an international revolutionary movement for a socialist world.
Image Credit: Claire Bayler, 2016