Juan Cole’s article titled “How the US went Fascist: Mass media Makes excuses for Trump Voters” reminded me that I wanted to say something about all this. It is not the first time I’ve run into a massive amount of warnings about a new Hitler or Mussolini running for President on the Republican Party ticket. Of course, with so many memes identifying Trump with Il Duce on the basis of his scowls and demagoguery, the temptation to make such an identification is irresistible especially if you are unfamiliar with historical materialism.
For Cole, the analogies with fascist Italy are obvious:
This is how the dictators came to power in the 1920s and 1930s. Good people remained silent or acquiesced. People expressed hope that something good would come of it. Mussolini would wring the laziness out of Italy and make the trains run on time.
Of course, what’s missing here is the threat to Italian capitalism that spurred the ruling class to throw its weight behind Mussolini—a revolutionary working class that supported anarchist, socialist and Communist parties. The Biennio Rosso, or “two red years” that lasted from 1919 to 1920, was marked by mass strikes and factory occupations. The Socialist Party of Italy had 250,000 members and the anarchists could count on up to 300,000 activists. From the Wikipedia article on the Biennio Rosso, we learn:
In Turin and Milan, factory councils – which the leading Italian Marxist theoretician Antonio Gramsci considered to be the Italian equivalent of Russia’s soviets – were formed and many factory occupations took place under the leadership of revolutionary socialists and anarcho-syndicalists. The agitations also extended to the agricultural areas of the Padan plain and were accompanied by peasant strikes, rural unrests and armed conflicts between left-wing and right-wing militias.
Industrial action and rural unrest increased significantly: there were 1,663 industrial strikes in 1919, compared to 810 in 1913. More than one million industrial workers were involved in 1919, three times the 1913 figure. The trend continued in 1920, which saw 1,881 industrial strikes. Rural strikes also increased substantially, from 97 in 1913 to 189 by 1920, with over a million peasants taking action. On July 20-21, 1919, a general strike was called in solidarity with the Russian Revolution.
Comrades, I don’t know how to put this exactly but similarities between Italy in 1919 and the USA in 2016 are less than zero. What insurgencies are a Trump-style fascism supposed to overcome? Black Lives Matter? The Chicago Teachers Union? Kshama Sawant? The good news is that fascism is not on the agenda because the movements of the working class and other oppressed sectors are so weak. Meanwhile the bad news is that the movements of the working class and other oppressed sectors are so weak.
I wrote about the Pat Buchanan campaign in 2000, when exactly the same fears existed. Just change the name from Buchanan to Trump and it holds up pretty well:
Sally Ryan posted an article from the Militant newspaper the other day. It states that Buchanan is a fascist:
“Buchanan is not primarily out to win votes, nor was he four years ago. He has set out to build a cadre of those committed to his program and willing to act in the streets to carry it out. He dubs his supporters the ‘Buchanan Brigades’….
“Commenting on the tone of a recent speech Buchanan gave to the New Hampshire legislature, Republican state representative Julie Brown, said, ‘It’s just mean – like a little Mussolini.’….
“While he is not about to get the Republican nomination, Buchanan is serious in his campaign. The week before his Louisiana win, he came in first in a straw poll of Alaska Republicans and placed third in polls in New Hampshire, where the first primary election will be held. He is building a base regardless of how the vote totals continue to fall. And he poses the only real alternative that can be put forward within the capitalist system to the like-sounding Clinton and Dole – a fascist alternative.”
These quotations tend to speak for a rather wide-spread analysis of Buchanan that a majority of the left supports, including my comrades on this list.
I want to offer a counter-analysis:
1) We are in a period of quiescence, not class confrontation.
Comrades, this is the good news and the bad news. It is good news because there is no threat of a fascist movement coming to power. It is bad news because it reflects how depoliticized the US working-class remains.
There is no fascist movement in the United States of any size or significance. It is time to stop talking about the militias of Montana. Let us speak instead of New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco, etc. Has there been any growth of fascism? Of course not. In New York, my home town, there is no equivalent of the German- American bund, the fascists of the 1930s who had a base on New York’s upper east side, my neighborhood.
There are no attacks on socialist or trade union meetings. There are not even attacks on movements of allies of the working-class. The women’s movement, the black movement, the Central American movement organize peacefully and without interference for the simple reason that there are no violent gangs to subdue them.
The reason there are no violent gangs of fascists is the same as it was in the 1950s. We are not in a period of general social crisis. There are no frenzied elements of the petty-bourgeoisie or the lumpen proletariat being drawn into motion by demagogic and charismatic leaders like Mussolini or Hitler. There are no Silver Shirts that the labor or socialist movement needs protection from.
There is another key difference from the 1930s that we must consider. Capital and labor battled over the rights of labor within the prevailing factory system. Capitalism has transformed that factory system. Workers who remain in basic industry are not fighting for union representation. They simply want to keep their jobs. Those who remain employed will not tend to enter into confrontations with capital as long as wages and benefits retain a modicum of acceptability. That is the main reason industrial workers tend to be quiescent and will remain so for some time to come.
In the 1930s, workers occupied huge factories and battled the bosses over the right to a union. The bosses wanted to keep these factories open and strikes tended to take on a militant character in these showdowns. Strike actions tended to draw the working-class together and make it easier for socialists to get a hearing. This was because strikes were much more like mass actions and gave workers a sense of their power. The logical next step, according to the socialists, was trade union activity on a political level and, ultimately, rule by the workers themselves.
The brunt of the attack today has been downsizing and runaway capital. This means that working people have a fear of being unemployed more than anything else. This fear grips the nation. When a worker loses a job today, he or she tends to look for personal solutions: a move to another city, signing up for computer programming classes, etc. Michael Moore’s “Roger and Me” vividly illustrated this type of personal approach Every unemployed auto worker in this film was trying to figure out a way to solve their problems on their own.
In the face of the atomization of the US working class, it is no surprise that many workers seem to vote for Buchanan. He offers them a variant on the personal solution. A worker may say to himself or herself, “Ah, this Buchanan’s a racist bigot, but he’s the only one who seems to care about what’s happening to me. I’ll take a gamble and give him my vote.” Voting is not politics. It is the opposite of politics. It is the capitalist system’s mechanism for preventing political action.
2) Buchanan is a bourgeois politician.
Pat Buchanan represents the thinking of an element of the US ruling class, and views the problems of the United States from within that perspective. Buchanan’s nationalism relates very closely to the nationalism of Ross Perot, another ruling class politician.
A consensus exists among the ruling class that US capital must take a global route. The capitalist state must eliminate trade barriers and capital must flow to where there is greatest possibility for profit. Buchanan articulates the resentments of a section of the bourgeoisie that wants to resist this consensus. It would be an interesting project to discover where Buchanan gets his money. This would be a more useful of one’s time than comparing his speeches to Father Coughlin or Benito Mussolini’s.
There are no parties in the United States in the European sense. In Europe, where there is a parliamentary system, people speak for clearly defined programs and are responsible to clearly defined constituencies. In the United States, politics revolves around “winner take all” campaigns. This tends to put a spotlight on presidential elections and magnify the statements of candidates all out of proportion.
Today we have minute textual analysis of what Buchanan is saying. His words take on a heightened, almost ultra-real quality. Since he is in a horse race, the press tends to worry over each and every inflammatory statement he makes. This tends to give his campaign a more threatening quality than is supported by the current state of class relations in the United States.
3) The way to fight Buchanan is by developing a class alternative.
The left needs a candidate who is as effective as Buchanan in drawing class lines.
The left has not been able to present an alternative to Buchanan. It has been making the same kinds of mistakes that hampered the German left in the 1920s: ultraleft sectarianism and opportunism. Our “Marxist-Leninist” groups, all 119 of them, offer themselves individually as the answer to Pat Buchanan. Meanwhile, social democrats and left-liberals at the Nation magazine and elsewhere are preparing all the reasons one can think of to vote for the “lesser evil”.
What the left needs to do is coalesce around a class-based, militant program. The left has not yet written this program, despite many assurances to the contrary we can hear on this list every day. It will have to be in the language of the American people, not in Marxist- Leninist jargon. Some people know how speak effectively to working people. I include Michael Moore the film-maker. I also include people like our own Doug Henwood, and Alex Cockburn and his co-editor Ken Silverstein who put out a newsletter called “Counterpunch”.
Most of all, the model we need is like Eugene V. Debs and the Socialist Party of the turn of the century, minus the right-wing. Study the speeches of Debs and you get an idea of the kind of language we need to speak. Our mission today remains the same as it was in turn of the century Russia: to build a socialist party where none exists.