As Trump has launched attack after attack on working people and the oppressed, he has fomented racist, sexist, and xenophobic hysteria to boost support for those attacks. Many have accused Trump of fascism. But alongside Trump’s attacks we have seen the growth of far-right forces that much more closely fit the fascist label. In the first ten days after Trump’s election, the Southern Poverty Law Center counted 867 hate incidents, the vast majority of them celebrating Trump’s election. Fascist, neo-Nazi, and white nationalist organizations have popped out of the woodwork, sometimes under the guise of the so-called “alt right.”
The rise of the far right in the U.S. is part of a wider growth of far-right and fascist forces across the world. This has been particularly pronounced in countries like Greece and Hungary where explicitly fascist parties have been able to gain as high as 20% support in national elections. As the term “fascist” has increasingly devolved into a vacuous epithet used against any politician someone doesn’t like, the reality of actual fascist and far-right forces on the ground has come as a rude awakening for many. And the question of fighting the far right has come back on the agenda.
What is Fascism?
The renewed concern about fascism has revealed intense popular confusion about what fascism actually is. Popular explanations often take the form of superficial psychological or ideological comparisons between figures like Trump and historical fascists like Hitler and Mussolini. These sorts of explanations can paint any right-wing politician as a fascist, and are often used to scare people away from voting for third parties. Similar shallow explanations have also been used for even more dubious historical comparisons, such as the attempts to compare Trump with Lenin.
This was seen in a recent article in Raw Story which claimed to expose “the scary parallels between Trump and Mussolini.” Paging through a biography of Mussolini by R.J.B. Bosworth, the article proceeds to spout out a slew of banalities and armchair psychoanalysis. Thus we learn that both Trump and Mussolini “preferred to avoid in-depth conversations,” engaged in “cowing the press,” and that “there were few things that annoyed [them] more than overt criticism.” Trump is a horrible reactionary, but this sort of shallow analysis provides no insight into the factors that brought Trump to power, the threat he poses, or how his agenda can be defeated.
Fascism is best understood as a social movement, not as a checklist of psychological traits. That’s how Marxists like Leon Trotsky approached the question in the 1930s when fascism was at its peak. German and Italian capitalism had gone into crisis beginning in World War I, provoking massive revolutionary upsurges. But the working class suffered a series of defeats, while capitalism remained unable to solve its crisis. Nevertheless the question of social revolution began to be sharply posed again in the context of the Great Depression. The fascist movements of Hitler and Mussolini were mass movements whose aim was to physically liquidate all the organizations of the working-class in order to save capitalism. Resting on the ruined middle class, fascism served the interests of big business, with the brownshirt thugs doing what the capitalists couldn’t accomplish on their own.
Fascism as a mass force can only triumph thorough smashing the organizations of the working class and crushing all dissent. The situation today is not the same as in the 1930s. Under actual fascism the left would not be able to publicly organize or protest. Donald Trump may have enough passive support from the population to get elected, but there is no equivalent of a brownshirt army capable of crushing all dissent. In the past couple months, Trump has toned down his hostility to sections of the state apparatus and to a certain extent his anti-media campaign. At least for the moment, he is relying more on the generals and the Republican leadership than on far right figures like Bannon who has been partially sidelined within the administration.
Trump’s election has, on the other hand, invigorated a number of genuinely fascist and semi-fascist forces, like Ku Klux Klan splinters, various neo-Nazi and white nationalist organizations, and a semi-fascist layer growing out of the forces of the so-called “alt right.” These forces would gladly play the role of the American brownshirts. But at the moment, while emboldened, they remain extremely weak. Even in Europe, where the far right is much better organized and has real weight in many countries, many of the key far-right parties have frequently cut their ties with neo-Nazis. This is the case for example with the French National Front run by Marine Le Pen.
We may not be repeating the experience of Germany in 1933, but the rise of the right does pose a threat to workers and the oppressed. The small fascist and semi-fascist forces may not be on the verge of power, but they can still intimidate immigrant communities, transgender people, and other oppressed groups. And they can still carry out violent assaults on strikes and protests, as seen when white nationalists fired shots into a Black Lives Matter demonstration in Minneapolis in 2015.
The So-Called “Alt Right”
One new phenomenon that distinguishes the far right of today from classical fascism is the development of the so-called “alt right.” The term was coined in 2010 by Richard Spencer. Spencer later became famous for being punched in the face during Donald Trump’s inauguration. Spencer is an open white nationalist who calls for “peaceful ethnic cleansing” to build a homeland for the “dispossessed white race.” But Spencer has refused to openly identify with the term “neo-Nazi.”
Forces identifying with the so-called “alt right” became a prominent wing of the Trump campaign. The right-wing propaganda website Breitbart took up the term, with the website’s CEO Steve Bannon calling the site “the platform for the alt-right.” Bannon would later become Trump’s campaign adviser during the election and chief strategist afterwards. After Trump’s election, “alt right” activists held victory parties where they gave Nazi salutes and chanted “Heil Trump.” While not all elements under the “alt-right” label can be called fascist, nevertheless, it is increasingly a way for fascist and semi-fascist forces to worm their way into political respectability. It cannot be seen, at least so far, as a coherent movement.
More than classical fascism, Trump’s rise, and his relation with the so-called “alt right” hearkens back to the American tradition of virulently right-wing populism, often flirting with fascist ideas. The relation between Trump and Bannon bears a strong resemblance to Huey Long, who planned to run a right-populist presidential campaign in 1936, backed by the pro-Hitler radio commentator Father Charles Coughlin. Long’s campaign was cut short by his assassination in 1935, but other right-wing populists have since run presidential campaigns that gained a disturbing amount of support, from the 1968 campaign of the segregationist George Wallace to the 2000 Reform Party candidacy of nativist Pat Buchannan. Ironically, during the 2000 election, Donald Trump ran a primary campaign against Buchannan, presenting himself as a moderate.
In addition to right-wing populism, the “alt right” movement has also grown out of the libertarian movements, with many citing support for the Austrian School “anarcho-capitalist” economist Murray Rothbard. This is especially the case on college campuses, where it leans on better-off students who have less of an interest in populist appeals and more of an interest in defending their “personal freedoms” against “social justice warriors.” Libertarian student groups like Young Americans for Liberty, which grew out of Ron Paul’s 2008 presidential campaign, have been to the fore in bringing “alt right” speakers to college campuses. This has lead to infighting within the libertarian movement, especially when Richard Spencer was invited to attend the International Students for Liberty Conference.
One distinguishing feature of the “alt right,” arising from that college libertarian tradition, is its use of irony to cloak its noxious politics. The movement flourished on the Internet forums of 4chan, which specializes in shock humor. They built up a new iconography out of memes based on cartoon frogs and old fast food mascots, so you could never tell if they were joking or not. People who didn’t like them would be accused of being easily offended “snowflakes” who just can’t take a joke. When a gay “alt right” spokesman like Milo Yiannopoulos says “If someone calls you an anti-Semite, you go to their page and put up swastikas” it blurs the line between genuine fascists and people playing at fascism to piss people off.
Another distinguishing feature of the “alt right” is their use of the Internet to carry out attacks. Yiannopoulos was banned from Twitter in July 2016 for using it to organize targeted harassment campaigns against assorted individuals. Before he fell from grace recently over a pedophilia controversy, Yiannopoulos was carrying out a tour of college campuses where he engaged in “doxxing” students, posting their personal information to incite mob harassment campaigns. At the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee he outed a transgender student. And he had begun a campaign to out undocumented students across the country.
These harassment campaigns reveal the reality behind the “alt right” cloak of irony. Yiannopoulos may be “joking” when he posts swastikas on people’s Facebook pages. But systematic campaigns of harassment and intimidation against immigrants and transgender people can’t be explained away by irony.
As far right forces have gained in respectability, the movement against them has grown. When figures like Milo Yiannopoulos and Richard Spencer go on speaking tours around the country, left-wing activists have mobilized to shut them down.
But these actions have provoked a debate around the question of free speech. If we shut down people’s speaking tours, it’s argued, we’re no different from the fascists we’re protesting. This debate popped up prominently after an anti-Milo Yiannopoulos protest in Berkeley that Socialist Alternative helped to organize. Yiannopoulous’s visit was intended as part of his campaign to out undocumented students. Socialist Alternative helped initiate the protest, creating the Facebook event page. A wide array of forces came out, from a group of professors petitioning the university to cancel the event, to a group of Black Bloc anarchists. The protests managed to shut down Yiannopoulous’s event, but this was accompanied by the Black Bloc anarchists engaging in acts of vandalism and anti-fascist protesters getting into physical altercations with the Yiannopoulos supporters. Supporters of the “alt right” have used this to portray themselves as the victims.
But Yiannopoulos was intending to use that platform to dox undocumented students. When Yiannopoulos used his platform to publicize the personal information of transgender and undocumented students he wasn’t expressing his opinions. He was directly organizing a campaign of harassment and intimidation.
The liberal defense of free speech for fascists was taken to ludicrous extremes when Daniel Dropik, a student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison tried to build an “alt right” student club at the university. Dropik is a member of the neo-Nazi American Freedom Party and he had been convicted of racist arson attacks against black churches before he started attending the university. But an editorial in the Wisconsin State Journal had the nerve to defend Dropik through an appeal to diversity, declaring: “If the university is going to treat diversity as an unmitigated good, it can’t really complain when that diversity comes in the form of an ‘alt-right’ federal convict.”
But if a layer of liberals adopts a crude, essentialist defense of free speech at all cost, there is also a layer in the anti-fascist movement that takes a crude essentialist defense of the notion of “no platform for fascists.” Socialists advocate mobilizing mass movements to block fascists and other far-right forces from using public platforms to mobilize, incite attacks, and recruit. We also oppose making appeals to the government to ban fascist organizations. Fighting the far right has to be the product of mass struggle, not strengthening the repressive apparatus of the state. When such legislation has been passed it has been used to repress the left as well. This was the case in 1940 with the Smith Act, ostensibly aimed at combating fascism, but which was later used against socialist groups, most notably the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party in the 1941 Minneapolis sedition trial. Unlike the Trotskyists, the Communist Party initially backed this legislation, only for it to be used against them as well later on.
At the same time, there is nothing automatic for us about a “no platform” position, even when dealing with explicit fascists. In general, we support denying fascists and other extreme right forces a platform and crushing them before they can gain a foothold. But this cannot be artificially done, especially where they have succeeded in reaching a broader audience who will need to be broken from them firstly through political debate. This problem was seen in Britain in the last decade when the semi-fascist British National Party (BNP) was making electoral gains. Anti-fascist groups like United Against Fascism refused on principle to debate BNP members. This meant that when the capitalist media did give a platform to the BNP, there was often no anti-fascist voice to challenge them.
Both sides of this issue were seen in the controversy of television host Bill Maher inviting Milo Yiannopoulos onto his show. This gave Yiannopoulos a major public platform and people were rightly disgusted with Maher’s decision. But once, Maher had given Yiannopoulos that platform, comedian Larry Wilmore correctly agreed to appear on the same show and challenge Yiannopoulos.
Exactly what tactics are appropriate depends on the extent to which far right forces have actually been able to develop a real base. Where the far right or fascists have gone beyond small circles and threaten to sink deeper roots, this generally reflects the utter desperation of sections of the middle class and working class in the face of capitalism’s crisis and the failure of the main forces on the left or the labor movement to show a clear way forward. The question posed for socialists in this situation is precisely to expose the false idea that targeting minorities will solve people’s problems and that what is required is a united fight of the working class and all the oppressed against capitalism. This of course must be accompanied by the mobilization of the working class to counter and prevent physical attacks by the far right. In this way the hard core of the far right can be exposed, isolated and defeated. But at the end of the day, the fight against fascism and the far right is 90% a political struggle.
The Need for Mass Action
Of course, the growth of the far right is not simply an ideological, but a physical threat. Even before the election, the question of violence and self-defense was being discussed. The punching of Richard Spencer and the violence at the Berkeley anti-Milo Yiannopoulos protests helped broaden this into a wider question about the role of violence in fighting the far right.
Socialist Alternative has no moral objections to punching Nazis, or sharing memes about punching Nazis. And we absolutely defend the right of workers and the oppressed to self-defense. But the most effective resistance to the far right will be mass resistance.
When a lone activist punched Richard Spencer in the face, it made many people feel warm and fuzzy inside, but it did little to actually stop Spencer from organizing. When Black Bloc anarchists in Berkeley broke through the police barricade while Milo Yiannopoulos was trying to speak, it served to concretely shut down the event and prevent the outing of undocumented students. But this was accompanied by graffiti and smashing windows which actively turned off the wider public. Moreover, while it shut down the far right in the short term, it emboldened them in the medium term. By April 15, “alt right” forces held a new “free speech” rally at Berkeley, in which counter-protesters found themselves severely outnumbered and violently attacked by the far-right demonstrators. This precisely shows the danger of focusing on small group “street fighting.”
Moreover, the Black Bloc actions were carried out without any democratic participation from the wider masses, including the other protesters. It was a small group of self-styled revolutionaries acting on behalf of the masses. Many of the anarchists who are attracted to Black Bloc tactics are opposed as a matter of principle to building mass democratic structures, and Black Bloc actions tend to stifle the building of such structures. But it is precisely structures like that that are necessary to build a mass movement that can challenge and push back both right populism and the far right.
In Minneapolis in 2015, when white supremacists fired shots into a Black Lives Matter protest, Socialist Alternative called on the labor and community forces involved to organize a broad labor/community defense coalition to physically defend the movement against attacks. Although the defense coalition was never set up, the call was well-received, and as the struggle against the far right heats up, these sorts of democratically-run broad defense coalitions will become a more prominent feature of struggle.
Beyond taking on the far right, mass action is necessary to stop the right populism of Trump and the conditions that breed Trumpism. Before Trump, we saw a wave of right populism in the form of the Tea Party which saw massive growth in 2009-10. But by 2011, the Tea Party was pushed back by the mass working class movement in Wisconsin. Although the movement failed to stop the anti-union attacks, the mere existence of the movement cut across popular support for the Tea Party and shifted consciousness to the left. The same needs to be done in the face of Trump.
Physically confronting the quasi-fascist elements of the alt-right is a necessity. But limiting oneself to small-scale street battles misses the wider struggle we’re facing. We need to defend not only against fascists, but ICE raids and police repression. We need to build the capability of organizing mass strikes. We need to build a party of the 99% that can take on, not only the fascists, but Trump and the whole billionaire class. We need to fight, not only the far right, but the conditions that allow the far right to grow.