Theories of modern fascism need to be updated to show its American origins, the centrality of racism, and how it needs to be defeated in the streets.
The presidency of Donald Trump has helped relegitimize domestic fascist ideas largely confined to the fringes of American politics for the last six decades. Along with armed public spectacles and rallies to Unite the Right, fascist militants have grown more confident and organized. Their ideas are buoyed by state-sponsored concentration camps, ICE raids on immigrant families, Blue Lives Matter propaganda campaigns, and the vilification of “anarchist jurisdictions” where the left has made gains in the streets, workplaces, and voting booths. Even an election defeat for Trump could serve as a clarion call for escalated fascist violence against the Black liberation struggle and the rest of the left. Regardless of who ultimately occupies the Oval Office, combatting the emerging movement of American fascism will remain an urgent task for the coming period.
An analysis of modern American fascism must look beyond the early waves in Europe during the interwar period. Back then, Marxists and other revolutionaries made indispensable contributions to our understandings of fascism’s roots, its class character, and its relationship to imperialism and capitalist decay. But theory was nothing without an effective strategy to smash the war machine of fascism. And it had to be constantly revised to fit the real experience of fascism in power. As Ernest Mandel noted in 1969, “The history of the rise of fascism is thus at the same time the history of the inadequacy of the dominant theory of fascism.”1
Just as German fascism differed from the Italian and Spanish, we should not expect today’s fascist movements to be rank regurgitations of European movements from a century ago. In the midst of the McCarthyite witchhunts, James Cannon admonished those “who will not recognize incipient American fascism until it obliges them by assuming the ‘classic’ European form.” That would be a catastrophic error to repeat.
Whether Donald Trump deserves the label of fascist is beside the point. Instead of tit-for-tat comparisons with Hitler or Mussolini, we should situate American fascism in the current global context: ISIS and fascist reaction in the Middle East, Jair Bolsonaro’s followers in Brazil, Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party in India, and the scads of rats’ nests across Europe itself.
The subjugation of revolutionary socialist struggles after the First World War throughout Europe gave rise to a new form of state reaction and violence. It differed qualitatively from the antidemocratic, authoritarian, and conservative states of Europe’s moribund ruling classes. Instead, the rise of fascism meant total barbarism on an industrial scale never before witnessed. The normal capitalist dynamics of imperialism, racism, nationalism, and exploitation were maximized. The core of fascism’s hyper-centralized state power and ideology was the aggressive, unadulterated reconsolidation of bourgeois rule. Genocide and global war weren’t arbitrary outcomes, but the rationale of fascism itself.
Socialists were among its first victims. Their analysis from jail cells, in exile, and struggling for their lives, remain sharply insightful, essential to our analyses of fascism today. During its infancy, Antonio Gramsci identified fascism as “the attempt to resolve the problems of production and exchange with machine-guns and pistol-shots.”2 Later, Marxists noted its specific reactionary character in the context of half-made or defeated revolutions of the working-classes. Additionally, fascism was a mass movement of the ruined middle-classes who ruthlessly employed bloody terror to destroy every vestige of working-class organization and power. Ultimately, fascist power represented the vulgar power of big capital, stripped of all pretense to democracy and decorum. 3
There are important congruities between today’s fascist reaction and that of the interwar period. The Arab Spring and subsequent revolutionary struggles showed—on a global scale—that revolutions of the poor and oppressed are possible. Dictators and reactionary states in country after country faced existential crises. In the US, the Occupy movement radically challenged the obscene inequality essential to American capitalism. And the movement for Black lives, building on the long arc of the Black liberation struggle, threatened to literally burn down the institutions of American racism. Capitalists around the world trembled before a new global left that spread revolutions without reverence for borders.
Likewise, global capitalism has entered an epoch of profound crisis. Forced migration, climate disaster, and rapidly declining profitability has left capitalists around the world scrambling for control and legitimacy. US unemployment has reached staggering levels. And a global pandemic amplifies deep social crisis in schools, communities, workplaces, and households to excruciating levels.
Sadly, mass organizations of the working-class were long ago destroyed, dissolved, or absorbed into the Democratic Party. Only one in ten workers in the United States are part of a union today, and there is no hint of a social-democratic or labor party, however meagre. Still, since the Arab Spring and Occupy movement, important new organizations and networks of the oppressed and working-class have been painstakingly built. And, today, there are more people involved in that broad social movement—unapologetically Black, queer, feminist, and revolutionary—than in a generation.
Meanwhile, coal baron has-beens, libertarian cretins, and fascist organizations have been far too successful at cohering a movement of the declassed, the dim, and the despicable. They train in militias and police departments for violence that is meted out against us in the streets. Donald Trump’s presidency was only the most public spectacle of the more perverse, homicidal fascist project to destroy our social movements, organizations, and hope for liberation.
Antifascism must be a forceful principal of all our struggles, which are already under assault. We must mobilize and defeat the fascist movement in its formative stage. And, like the revolutionaries of Russia, Germany, Spain, and Italy, we must update our theories of fascism. The four theses below aim to add to our analysis in order to more effectively resist and defeat fascism in the United States before it is too late.
Four updated theses
1. American racism is a principal component of modern fascism.
The racist terror unleashed on Black people and poor whites throughout the American South obliterated the impressive gains the working class made during the Reconstruction era. The vicious reaction to Reconstruction spawned numerous protofascist organizations of business owners, politicians, and racist vigilantes. Their redemption of white supremacy helped thrust the American state westward in an orgy of industrialization, railroad profiteering, and bloodletting. Indigenous nations in the path of Manifest Destiny faced apocalyptic ruin.
Klan terror and state-directed pogroms were the practical component of the modern American racist ideology of eugenics. The pseudo-science functioned to explain, normalize, and legitimize the deep inequalities of American capitalism with racist myths. Indeed, eugenics inspired the early fascist movement with the practical and ideological core of its racial hierarchy and antisemitism.
The early analysis of fascism by European Marxists largely underestimated the centrality of racist ideology to the fascist movement in the interwar period. Because anti-Jewish pogroms had long been a practice of Europe’s old feudal reactionaries, antisemitism was not initially understood as uniquely fascist. Nor did they sufficiently theorize the racialized character of twentieth-century antisemitism and its relationship to racism broadly.
But, eugenics refashioned antiquated antisemitism with modern racial ideology. No longer were Jews simply a religious group or even a merchant class. Instead, Jews were recast as an allegedly inferior race. Indeed, the fascist project of race-making left few Europeans unmarked as degenerate races, despite their apparent whiteness. Today, fascist racism is wielded against Muslims in India or even immigrant workers from Eastern Europe.
American racism is a principal component of modern, international fascism. It is the ideological justification for national identities, borders, and the deep social inequalities endemic to capitalism. Fascism aims to deepen the chasms of racial differentiations in the interest of repressive, homogeneous nation-states.
2. Cops are the most organized and effective force of fascist reaction.
The most important organizations of modern American fascism are police departments in cities across the United States. With massive bank roles and criminal syndicates like the Fraternal Order of Police that immunize them from accountability, police forces have emerged as violent, independent political actors. Across the board, they endorsed Donald Trump’s campaign and rigorously defend their worst atrocities. Organized, self-conscious fascists have identified police departments as a sympathetic arena for action and recruitment. As a report from the Brennan Center for Justice has outlined:
Since 2000, law enforcement officials with alleged connections to white supremacist groups or far-right militant activities have been exposed in Alabama, California, Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, Louisiana, Michigan, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Oregon, Texas, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia, and elsewhere. Research organizations have uncovered hundreds of federal, state, and local law enforcement officials participating in racist, nativist, and sexist social media activity, which demonstrates that overt bias is far too common. These officers’ racist activities are often known within their departments, but only result in disciplinary action or termination if they trigger public scandals.4
Because so much analysis has focused on homicidal “lone-actors” and their mass-shooting rampages, today’s fascist movement appears unintelligible, factionalized, and incoherent. But the rise of fascism was never a coherent, linear process. Rather, it involved intense political struggles within its various organizations. During the summer of 1934, Hitler waged a violent “blood purge” campaign against the Nazi’s own Brownshirts paramilitary wing in order to consolidate power. We should not underestimate the level of organization and coherence of today’s movement, even with its fetish with bizarre conspiracy theories and fratboy nonsense.
In terms of sheer racist terror and brutality—often with explicit fascist influence—police departments have become the most systematic and organized wing of modern American fascism. Of course, this should surprise no one; the roots of modern police extend back to the southern slavocracy and its brutal liquidation of Black power during Reconstruction.
But police continue to have profound social power and support among broad layers of the American state. Joe Biden, along with Democratic mayors, city councils, and so-called progressive Black politicians, continue to funnel ungodly amounts of money and legitimacy into police departments across the country.
That’s why the demand to defund police is not just an important demand of the movement for Black lives, but a fundamentally antifascist one as well.
3. Balkanization is a war of racism.
During the 1990s, Slobodan Milošević and other fascist warlords waged campaigns of ethnic cleansing throughout the Balkans in central Europe. The diverse peoples of the former Yugoslavia were systematically turned against one another based on artificial inventions of race and ethnicity. Racist ideology and warfare carved the region into a series of nation-states in a process called balkanization. Today’s fascist movements explicitly seek to provoke a similar process of balkanization in the United States and elsewhere.
This is different from early fascism. Then, fascists attempted to galvanize a reinvigorated, if mythical, national identity to reclaim the lost fortunes of colonialism. Naked imperial violence was an immediate effect of fascism’s first wave.
Like pre-war European monarchs, the fossil fuel barons of American capital and their military ventures in the Middle East appear withered and humiliated; a washed-up superpower that now negotiates with the Taliban. Rather than Afghanistan or Iraq, American fascism is obsessed with militarizing its own national borders and repressing the struggle for Black liberation in the streets. In Brazil, Bolsonaro is bent on the occupation, incineration, and forced capitalist development of the Amazon basin. Modi continues to lay siege to Kashmir, the most dangerous and most densely militarized place on the planet.
Today’s fascism is less concerned with securing colonies outside of its own national borders. Instead, modern fascism’s project is the Balkanization of regional, cultural, religious, racial, and ethnic identities within the existing nation-state. The goal is a program of nationalist economic development based on the plunder of natural resources. This violent reshaping of national identity relies on policing, displacement, internal colonialism, and occupation. Its logic is genocide.
4. Power in the streets
The most important practical guide to the fight against fascism remain Leon Trotsky’s urgent appeals for an united front of all organizations of the oppressed and working class. Yet, there are undeniable obstacles for a united front approach in the US today. We have no mass social democratic party, let alone a mass revolutionary party.
And workplace organization remains scattered. Teachers and public sector workers can strike powerful ideological blows over the allocation of resources; schools or police. Amazon workers have massive power against the obscene wealth and priorities of capitalists like Jeff Bezos. But the growth of the fascist right has implications much wider than the workplace and the battleground is often elsewhere.
Clearly, the movement for Black lives will continue to be the sharpest knife in the campaign against fascism. The cops will murder more people. There will be more rebellions. And fascists will try to capitalize on racist reaction. Our power in the streets cannot be conceded. Wherever fascists attempt to gather and organize, we must mobilize to confront, intimidate, humiliate, and drive them back into their ratholes. Neither Joe Biden nor the national or local Democratic Party functionaries and officials will do it for us.
Only our broad social movement—inspired by the Arab Spring and Occupy, trained on the streets in the movement for Black lives, distraught over Donald Trump, and electrified by recent mass protests in Nigeria and Poland—can defeat fascism in the US and abroad.
1 Leon Trotsky, The Struggle against Fascism, 1st ed. (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1971), 11.
2 Antonio Gramscio, “On Fascism,” in Marxists in Face of Fascism: Writings by Marxists on Fascism from the Inter-War Period, ed. David Beetham (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2019), 82.
3 See Mike Taber and John Riddell, “Introduction” in Fighting Fascism: How to Struggle and How to Win, Clara Zetkin, ed. Mike Taber and John Riddell (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2017).
4 Michael German, “Hidden in Plain Sight: Racism, White Supremacy, and Far-Right Militancy in Law Enforcement,” August 27, 2020, https://www.brennancenter.org/our-work/research-reports/hidden-plain-sight-racism-white-supremacy-and-far-right-militancy-law.
5 Leon Trotsky, Fascism, Stalinism, and the United Front (London: Bookmarks, 1989), 41.
Eric Kerl is a Kentuckian living, working, organizing, and writing in Chicago. He is the author of White Bred: Hillbillies, White Trash, and Rednecks against White Supremacy, forthcoming from Haymarket Books. He is a a member of the Rampant editorial collective.