Protest Alone Won’t Stop Fascism

Photo by Fibonacci Blue | CC BY 2.0

When news struck that anti-Muslim protests with ties to white supremacists cancelled rallies across the country — in response to the huge anti-fascist rally in Boston — a clear victory was celebrated by the Left. A further anti-fascist victory was won in San Francisco, where a giant mobilization outnumbered a tiny smattering of far-right protesters who scurried away scared.

But these victorious battles won’t end the war. The cockroaches that crawled back under the floorboards will resume their work underground, where they join a mass of fascist termites eating away at the base of the U.S. political system.

The more conscious leaders of the budding fascist movement study history’s lessons. After Boston they made a strategic retreat, recognizing the balance of forces shifted against them. They’ll return to fight another day on more favorable terrain. Meanwhile they’re organizing.

The larger “alt right” white supremacist movement will continue to use ultra-wealthy donors and growing networks to refine their organizing in order to position themselves as the political “solution” to the deepening economic-political crisis experienced by millions of people.

Desperate people are vulnerable to fascism, and the desperation is deepening: millions are eyeball deep in debt and 80% live paycheck to paycheck, while skyrocketing healthcare costs and rising rent heat up the social pressure cooker.

It’s this economic gut punch that the fascists hope to benefit from: as working people struggle to breathe the fascists hope to offer cheap, ready-made oxygen.

The fascist’s ability to attract followers directly depends on the Left’s failure to lead politically. The Left’s inability to organize around a bold politics has allowed the Far Right space to demagogue, since fascist ideas only seem appealing when there’s no viable Left alternative. Without a well organized revolutionary perspective the ideas of the fascist can appear radical and even “revolutionary” to the confused, scared, and desperate. It’s this long game the white supremacists are focused on.

There is a battle of ideas taking place on the internet, college campuses, and in the streets. These ideas cannot be destroyed by street protests or fists alone, especially when fascist soil is being fertilized by economic desperation. The fascist movement is experiencing a quickly evolving renaissance, shedding the provocative symbols from the past while recruiting youth and refining their populist strategy of ‘economic nationalism.’

Whereas the fascists are educating and organizing the unorganized, the Left is often, unwittingly, pushing people into the arms of the fascists by offering confusing or contradictory ideas, allowing the fascists to retrofit Left politics for Far-Right purposes.

Fascists Against Free Trade!

Steven Bannon hates free trade like he hates Muslims. This “America First”-style economic nationalism is a strategy that has been instrumental in helping Trump posture as a populist, fooling millions of people in the process.

The Left is, sadly, partially to blame for Trump’s ability to pose as a trade-populist. For years a leading plank of the Leftists platform has been “anti-free trade,” a demand vague enough for Trump to steal it and re-purpose it for the fascist agenda.

The Left was shocked when Trump campaigned on anti-free trade rhetoric. And after winning the election Trump tore up the Trans Pacific Partnership, which the Left had unsuccessfully demanded that Obama kill. Trump’s action silenced the Left and riled up his base: In less than a month in office Trump had, seemingly, performed the most anti-establishment action since FDR.

Now Trump is throwing blows against NAFTA, threatening the life of the trade agreement long denounced by the Left. Obama vowed to “re-negotiate” NAFTA too, and it became one of his dozens of unfulfilled promises. If Trump tackles NAFTA he could win the next election by a landslide.

This is why the Left needs greater clarity on trade: it’s been weaponized by the fascists while the Left stutters in response. When Trump smashes the TPP and undermines NAFTA, he’s doing so from a U.S. corporate perspective; he wants to renegotiate to get a “better deal” for U.S. companies, workers be damned.

Since Mussolini’s Italy, a cornerstone of fascist economics has been trade protectionism (erecting trade barriers instead of free trade), which serves to fool the people while serving a section of corporations that benefit from trade wars with foreign corporations.

The opposite of free trade is protectionism: neither serve working people but both serve certain sections of capitalists. Corporations who compete well on the global market are fanatical free traders, but those capitalists that do badly overseas are fanatically anti-free trade, demanding “protection” from foreign competitors (like Chinese corporations) with government-imposed trade barriers.

It’s these anti-free trade capitalists who supported Trump’s campaign, and its this section of capitalists who’ve historically invested in fascist movements, a dynamic explained in Daniel Guerin’s classic work, “Fascism and Big Business.”

Capitalists undermine free trade in order to use “beggar thy neighbor” trade policies that give them an advantage at the expense of their corporate rivals, ultimately causing trade wars. The fascist architect Steve Bannon is the biggest proponent of a trade war against China. In a recent interview he said:

“The economic war with China is everything. And we have to be maniacally focused on that… We’re going to run the tables on these guys. We’ve come to the conclusion that they’re in an economic war and they’re crushing us.”
The journalist who interviewed Bannon explained that “… his strategy is to battle the trade doves (free traders) inside the administration while building an outside coalition of trade hawks (protectionists) that includes left as well as right.”
Bannon is able to recruit “left trade hawks” because the Left has miseducated its base about trade, allowing Trump to fool millions of people that he was the “radical” alternative to the establishment’s free-trade policies.

Revolutionary Fascism?

Fascist movements have historically fronted as a “revolutionary” ideology that use “anti-capitalist” rhetoric. They aim to be the “real” radicals and pose as more anti-establishment than other Left groups, who they accuse of being part of the status-quo.

It’s in this context that the “alt right” has exploited a weakness in the mostly-academic infighting around identity politics among the Left, where one side minimizes the importance of race/identity in politics while the other side minimizes class economic factors.

Leftists have traditionally acknowledged that race and class are inseparable under U.S. capitalism, yet the ongoing debates on the subject seek separation: in order to make their points both sides exaggerate their better arguments while minimizing that of their opponents, in a seemingly endless cycle of academic hair-splitting. Such debates are decades old among the Left, even though the current debate includes important ideas regarding race and identity.

However, both sides have unintentionally opened the doors of academia to the fascists, who’ve capitalized on various aspects of the conflict, just as they’ve done over free trade. If Leftists minimize race/identity in favor of class, the fascists are given room to enter these political spaces with their “economic nationalism” platform, in ways that can feel indistinguishable from the Left. If marginalized communities don’t see their specific issues reflected in coalitions they’ll be less likely to join, and any anti-fascist coalition will not reach the critical mass it needs to be effective.

The opposite mistake is ignoring economic factors and over-relying on race/identity, which allows the fascists to pose as the champions of working class interests by offering economic solutions the Left ignores.

Steven Bannon’s recent interview comments are, again, a useful example:

“The longer they talk about identity politics, I got ’em. I want them to talk about racism every day. If the left is focused on race and identity, and we go with economic nationalism, we can crush the Democrats.”

If you look beyond Bannon’s obvious racism you’ll notice he’s exploiting a deeper truth: a broader section of the population is drifting towards fascism because Bannon is pretending to address people’s material needs, while sections of the Left appear to only want to “talk” about race while actually not fighting for demands that disproportionately affect marginalized groups.

People of color, the disabled, women and other ethnic/religious minorities have specific, desperate needs around improved healthcare, education, housing, wages, transportation and more.

Meanwhile Bannon wants the Far Right to fight for “jobs” in high unemployment areas with false solutions such as trade protectionism and private sector infrastructure programs. If the Left abandons the fight for jobs — and other economic issues — the fascists are allowed to seize the initiative.

A New York Times op-ed recognized the danger in Bannon’s approach, in an article entitled ‘What if Steve Bannon is Right’

“…there are many more voters in Trump’s camp who still consider themselves Democrats. Some live in the much-discussed zone of despair, places where opportunities for people without a college degree are few, and the opioid epidemic rages. These folks are persuadable, if the message is economic hope…”

The Left can preempt Bannon’s white nationalism if it wins real victories in the arena of economic exploitation while simultaneously fighting for racial equity.

For example, fighting against housing discrimination shouldn’t be separated from the fight for rent control and against evictions; the fight for a $15 minimum wage and jobs is aided by demands against employment discrimination; the fight against education discrimination is helped by demanding full funded public education.

Martin Luther King Jr. cut to the essence of the class issues connected to the struggle for racial justice when he said:

“What good is having the right to sit at a lunch counter if you can’t afford to buy a hamburger?”

Centering on the needs of those most marginalized means inspiring people to action; to fight over demands they desperately need fulfilled is the first step in creating a militant, revolutionary movement.

Rafael Diaz discussed some of the mechanics of building a multiracial-identity movement in a recent article:

“Taking power is no easy task, and we need to be doing all we can to dive into deep and trusting organizing relationships with diverse groups of people who all have reasons for showing up. It’s necessary that we get a sense of clarity in our collective self-interest in toppling a system that exploits us all through class and racial inequality…We can organize our workplaces and communities to collectively build institutional structures and political organizations to fight for issues that couple class struggle and racial liberation. Policies such as universal healthcare, prison abolition and tuition-free higher education would improve lives and severely lessen racial and economic inequity.”

Ultimately people of every identity are themselves divided by class, where upper-income people are typically more politically conservative. Knowing this, the Democratic Party establishment borrows safely from an identity politics detached from economic exploitation. And seeing this, Bannon’s white supremacists talk increasingly about how “The Left is in bed with the establishment.” A diverse Left movement that challenges corporate power cannot be co opted by the Democrats, and is a critical ingredient in defeating the fascist movement in its infancy.

Lastly, the danger in detaching economic exploitation from identity politics is allowing the fascists to co-opt language from the Left. If the broader population isn’t trained to understand their circumstances in terms of economic exploitation, the fascists talking points become more compelling: “white identity” and “white pride” connect on a deeper level if “discrimination” is the only frame of reference people have to understand oppression, when in reality it’s mostly-white upper class people responsible for the suffering of poorer “white” people.

The Left’s Fatal Flaw: Misidentifying Fascism

Every racist is not a fascist. Nor can fascism be defined by a checklist of beliefs or government policies. In reality fascism is a mass movement that emerges in times of economic crisis, funded by a section of goal-oriented capitalists.

The ruling class chooses fascism when it cannot grapple with the social crisis caused by pro-capitalist policies. Mass unemployment, health care, the housing crisis, and other basic needs undermine the institutions of the status-quo. The pro-capitalist political parties lose legitimacy and find it increasingly difficult to maintain power, especially as they double-down on specific capitalist policies (neoliberalism) to keep corporations profitable.

Leon Trotsky explains the political-economic conditions that give rise to fascism in the classic work What is Fascism and How to Fight it:

“If the economy remains in the hands of a small number of capitalists, there is no way out for society. It is condemned to go from crisis to crisis, from need to misery, from bad to worse. In the various countries, the decrepitude and disintegration of capitalism are expressed in diverse forms and at unequal rhythms. But the basic features of the process are the same everywhere. The bourgeoisie is leading its society to complete bankruptcy. It is capable of assuring the people neither bread nor peace.”

When capitalism enters a crisis, corporations demand concessions: cuts in public spending, privatization of public resources, deregulation, lowering of wages and benefits, reducing health care and welfare and raising the age of retirement. All policies that serve to bolster profits.

To achieve these goals the ruling class must remove the social barriers to implementation. The main barriers are always the same: representative democracy and the organizations of the working class: labor unions, socialist/anarchist organizations and other working-class based community groups.

Trotsky summed up the ultimate goal of fascism:

“The historic function of fascism is to smash the working class, destroy its organizations, and stifle political liberties when the capitalists find themselves unable to govern and dominate with the help of democratic machinery.”

This is why in Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy the first people thrown into concentration camps were not the Jews, but leaders of revolutionary organizations and trade unions. This sequential repression was made famous by a poem by the German pastor Martin Niemoller:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

The Only Antidote to Fascism

Anti-fascist counter-protests are a key ingredient to beating fascism, but they are usually reactive, whereas the fascists are being proactive. It’s usually stronger to be “for something” than to simply be against it. Hitler explained in Mein Kampf that by taking the initiative the Nazi Party recruited people who wanted action; people who were tired of talk and wanted solutions.

This isn’t to minimize the recent mobilizations in Charlottesville, Boston and in San Francisco, which build strong connections between communities acting in self-defense. But in sports as in politics, the best defense is a good offense. Anti-fascist coalitions can also protect their communities by organizing for political demands, which take the air out of the fascists’ sails.

Ultimately the deepening economic-political crisis will continually re-pose a basic question to society that will be answered by either the Left or the Far Right: What are the economic-political solutions to the deepening crisis? Without a diverse, inspiring and independent movement of the Left, the Far Right will be given opportunity to use the twin strategies of racist scapegoating and economic nationalism.

For now the Left has the upper hand, as shown by the mass demonstrations after Trump was elected and the recent anti-fascist mobilizations. There is still plenty of time for the Left to out-organize the fascists and give a revolutionary answer to the crisis of capitalism.

The wind is at our backs but the window is shrinking. Once the current stock market boom goes bust, history will accelerate again, shrinking the timeline in which the Left must prove itself capable of leading the broader community out of the crisis. Increasingly frequent natural disasters also serve to fast forward history.

In his above-mentioned essay Trotsky notes: “Fascism comes only when the working class shows complete incapacity to take into its own hands the fate of society.”

Funneling the current political energy into a bold politics will cut fascism off at the kneecaps.

Shamus Cooke is a member of the Portland branch of Democratic Socialists of America. He can be reached at