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The Fascist Threat and How to Combat It

Proto-Fascism - seeding of the political ground for full-born fascism, tends to move from threat to reality when principal segments of finance capital no longer consider parliamentary democracy, their preferred form of rule, to be a guarantor of their hegemony. That tendency is increasingly global.

President Trump addressed troops at a Marine base in San Diego on Tuesday. It was his first visit to California as president.,Credit Doug Mills/The New York Times

Before tackling* the fascist threat, there is the challenge to define its roots – a subject that has been, and remains, fraught with controversy. Few, if any deny that fascism is manifested by its anti-democratic, repressive, authoritarian, violent and racist character. But there has been a long simmering debate over the social forces that foment and drive it. Some argue that it is a violent political expression of declassed, dispirited workers and lower middle class elements stripped of economic and social viability, turning their loss of status violently against adjacent political and/or ethnic communities.  

The definition that holds up well in light of historical experience remains that of the legendary antifascist George Dimitrov: “Fascism is the open terrorist dictatorship of the most reactionary, most chauvinistic and most imperialist elements of finance capital. … Fascism is the government of finance capital itself. It is an assault on organized labor and radical sectors of the intelligentsia. Fascism in its foreign policy is the most brutal kind of chauvinism which cultivates pathological hatred for other peoples.”   

That threat of fascism is borne out by the actions of the most reactionary elements of big capital in the United States. They are spending tens of millions through an elaborate network of ultra-right foundations and think tanks aimed at strangling democracy and advancing authoritarianism. Their genteel jackboots barely conceal their fascist tendencies aimed at destroying organized labor, stripping ameliorative social programs, despoiling the environment, suppressing voting rights, deepening already vast inequality, building a massive military, threatening immigrants, fomenting racial, ethnic and gender division, aggrandizing and strengthening their chosen vessel of arch reaction – Donald Trump. 

Proto-Fascism, the seeding of the political ground for full-bore fascism, tends to move from threat to reality when principal segments of finance capital no longer consider parliamentary democracy, their preferred form of rule, to be a guarantor of their hegemony.  

That tendency towards fascism is increasingly global. It seeks to redirect discontent with neoliberal globalization’s worldwide assault on democracy and working class standards into reactionary channels. Neoliberalism has spawned endless wars, economic stagnation, uprooting of vast populations into migratory waves and religious, racial and ethnic conflict. Those menacing circumstances have spurred the most right wing of rulers to fan bigotry and cultivate authoritarian movements that have taken power or experienced significant growth in Italy, Netherlands, Austria, Slovakia, Turkey Poland, Hungary, Ukraine, Greece, France, Germany and other countries.  

Proto Fascist movements are vehicles spurred by finance capital to redirect the pain and grievance engendered by neoliberalism into racist, anti-Semitic and ultra-nationalist channels. With shameless demagogy, proto-fascism will rail against “elites” while upholding the interests of the super rich.  

Donald Trump is the vessel of proto-fascist authoritarianism that paves the way to fully developed fascism. His racism has a long history and serves as the driver of “alt right” white nationalism that in turn becomes the crucial force putting racism more than ever at the heart of US capitalism – hurtling the entire system to the repressive far right. The Southern Poverty Law Center has pointed to Trump’s ascendance to the White House as the crucial factor that gave sustenance to the torch-bearing “good people” at Charlottesville, Virginia and accounts for the recent growth of a variety of alt right, white nationalist, racist and ant-Semitic organizations.  

Trump at bottom appears to be a hustler “petty bourgeois imperialist.” He is angered at the European Community for not granting licenses swiftly for building his golf courses. He uses his presidential brand to fill his hotels and leverages his presidency to obtain Chinese permission for his daughter to produce her myriad products. With all that, Trump has turned out to be a mendacious pliable billionaire for the coterie of billionaires that essentially control him. 

In a larger sense, Trump’s hustling proclivities are of little significance. His huge tax cuts for the rich and his massive military buildup alone are enough to get the approval of the largely Republican establishment as well as denizens of finance capital. Politicians of both parties along with major media rarely publicly denounce Trump’s extreme reactionary policies. Many condemn his style, settling on his crude violations of the “norms” of the presidency – his rudeness, his bumbling of ceremonial functions, his lies and blathering tweets, etc. Big business has little complaint with Trump’s presidency – unless he wanders too far off the political reservation.  

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Fascist threats have been around for a long time, exerting pressure upon dominant ruling elements that have sought compromises with opposing progressive political forces. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, key elements of big capital under immense strain entered into an historic compromise with the Roosevelt New Deal to recognize unions and accept collective bargaining.  

That triggered a pushback at the extremes. Father Charles Coughlin and his Social Justice movement set a record for demagogy – demanding nationalization of railroads and major industries, defending labor while criticizing Roosevelt for being too cozy with banks. However, Coughlin had telegraphed his latent far right reaction, his virulent anti-communism and his growing admiration for fascism. His disdain for bankers morphed into hatred for “Jewish bankers,” taking him down a monstrous anti-Semitic path of fascism. Ultimately, Coughlin’s movement, along with William Dudley Pelley’s Silver Shirts and more mainstream Charles Lindbergh’s “America First” neo-isolationism never gained traction to challenge for power and never won support from major sectors of finance capital that ultimately joined the struggle against fascism in World War II.  

In July 1944, capitalist powers gathered at Bretton Hills New Hampshire to create the architecture for postwar world capitalism under US hegemony. Forging international rules regarding commercial and financial relations, the US dollar was designated to serve as the foundation for global monetary activity while the newly created US-dominated International Monetary Fund and the World Bank locked weakened and/or emerging economies into the capitalist world order.  

In the political sphere, postwar International organizing principles reflected the bipolar reality of capitalist and socialist blocs. The US-led capitalist bloc preferred stable parliamentary governments based on formal electoral rules. However, potentially transformative movements were subjected to subversion and/or violent suppression. Iran, Guatemala, Congo, Haiti, Venezuela, Grenada, Panama, Honduras, Cuba, Libya, Chile, “color revolutions” in Eastern Europe over time represented a growing list of countries under assault for not conforming to the requirements of the capitalist world system fortified by its NATO military bloc and a massive US military machine. 

However, an integrated capitalist order requires modestly binding trade and regional security arrangements. Those obligations to global capitalist order have traditionally been resisted by the most chauvinist and nationalist sectors, largely situated in domestic capital. That group manifests manic hostility to the United Nations, rails against non-existent “world government” and “globalism,” claiming that global commitments savage the country’s independence, making it subservient to a vague but nefarious world order. The “anti-globalists” are stridently opposed to reciprocal trade and despite supposedly isolationist views, demand the massive buildup and projection of military force all over the world.  

Domestically, the “anti-globalists” are determined to destroy the last vestiges of New Deal protections for labor and the impoverished, have contempt for environmental science and relentlessly peddle anti-immigrant and other racist ideologies as primary vehicles to turn the anger of alienated white workers away from the systemic sources of their discontent. That is the basis for Trump’s assault on Mexicans, Muslims, African Americans and others buttressed by an implied promise to reclaim the fading dream of a “white man’s country.” 

Such outlooks rarely attained hegemony in the past. The situation today is qualitatively different and more ominous with Donald Trump occupying the White House. His “America First” doctrine has been a potent pseudo-populist brew of promises to end the alleged humiliation and neglect of “forgotten Americans.” Trump’s pledges to reverse the supposed gulling of the United States by other countries’ trade policies, resuscitate bygone manufactures and rebuild an already bloated military are framed by an authoritarian guise that has even targeted the FBI (itself the historic paragon of anti-democratic repression) and other agencies of the alleged “deep state.”  

Trump’s tariff on steel and aluminum is a major salvo threatening to sunder the unstable alliance of establishment “free trade” right-wingers and the hard right “America First” contingent. While the fissure over tariffs holds a prospect for weakening the white nationalist-establishment alliance, there is little basis for considering that break to be decisive. At root, the building of the broadest, most united alliance of anti-fascist organizations and individuals is the soundest road to defeating Trump and right wing assaults on democracy and equality. 

The massive women’s marches at the start of the Trump presidency are striking examples of the power of mass mobilization and of the unity of diverse progressive forces. Resistance on such a massive scale, resistance that reverberates in the streets and at the ballot boxes – is a basic requirement for defeating the fascist threat and setting the country on an irreversible progressive course.  

Recent battles have yielded a number of crucial needs in defeating the fascist-tinged right. Below are a few that by no means exhaust the list. 

·       There is an urgent need to link non-electoral issue-focused movements with electoral challenges. The two modes of struggle are inseparable and inter-dependent. It’s time to put to rest old arguments that have only debilitated movements in both arenas. The guiding principle should be mutual respect and cooperation wherever possible. 

·       Electoral reform is a vital need. Most, if not all components of the resistance should work against voter suppression and gerrymandering. The racist and reactionary nature of voter suppression should be exposed while the crucial role of the African American, Latino and other oppressed nationality voters should be underscored. 

·       The movement for progress and against the fascist threat needs to cohere and strengthen through “universalized resistance” consolidated through mutual support among single-issue and multi-issue formations. That mutual support has to embrace the “me too” and “times up” phenomena as well as reproductive choice organizations, environmental activists, human rights workers, LGBTQ movements,  anti-poverty activists, the Movement for Black Lives, the Poor People’s Campaign, single payer advocates, anti-war activists, labor organizers in unions and communities, disabled, senior and youth activists. All are objectively arrayed against the fascist threat and all need to be valued and supported.  

·       The organizing principles of the Poor People’s Campaign led by Rev. William Barber and the Movement for Black Lives need to be studied and emulated. Those movements are committed to fight the inseparable evils of inequality, racism and militarism. With that perspective, they tear down political silos and eliminate the needless tension between advancing economic struggles of largely white workers and the specific struggles for liberation of women and oppressed nationalities. 

·        Further, those movements challenge the relative silence of progressive organizations on issues of war and empire. Peace is an urgent, pivotal issue that can energize masses and is essential to the survival of domestic social programs and to eliminating the existential threat of thermonuclear war.  

·       The movement against the fascist threat needs to appeal to white labor based on shared interests and shared struggles. The experiences of the 1930s are instructive when white and black labor joined to build the industrial union movement.  

·       The unity of left and center forces is essential to combating the fascist threat. Within electoral politics, that unity requires cooperation between the left represented by the Sanders movement and centrist forces represented by the Clinton camp. Admittedly, that is a complex challenge. The left, while seeking joint efforts to defeat the far right, must not forsake its independent positions – advocating its advanced programs as the surest path to victory. While not forsaking that independence (and a commitment to independent candidacies where possible) the left need not simplistically attack Democratic centrists as neo-liberals hell-bent on exacerbating inequality. The crucial task is to build a progressive majority within the context of ending the Trump nightmare.

Ending the threat of fascism and defeating Trump is one of the most important challenges in the country’s history. Progressives can be inspired when it is noted that at crucial turning points – the Civil War and the struggle against slavery, the Great Depression and the building of industrial unionism, global unity to defeat of fascism in World War II, the civil rights movement, the anti-Viet Nam war movement – the vast majority made the right choices. Difficult challenges can be faced with optimism and hope. Peace and equality will win.


* Adapted from a talk at the Deerfield (Florida) Progressive Forum, January 27, 2018 

[Mark Solomon is a past national co-chair of the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism and is an associate at the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research at the Hutchins Center at Harvard University. His latest published writing is “After Sanders: Electoral Politics and Universalizing Movements,” in Charles Derber’s “Welcome to the Revolution: Universalizing Resistance for Social Justice and Democracy in Perilous Times.” (Routledge 2017)]