Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

April 7, 2016

Salvage Magazine on the nascent potential embryonic incipient threat of Trumpist fascism

Filed under: Fascism,Trump — louisproyect @ 4:23 pm

Salvage Magazine is one of a number of Marxist journals that have sprouted up in recent years joining Jacobin, N+1, and Endnotes. I am sympathetic to all of these publications even though I reserve the right to criticize them as the need arises. This is one of those occasions prompted by Salvage’s editorial on the Donald Trump campaign, which unfortunately exaggerates its fascist potential. I have been struck by the tendency of British Marxists, such as Salvage’s editors and some FB friends, to line up on this question with American liberals at places like Salon.com that has been pushing the Trump as fascist line as if it were Germany in 1931.

Screen Shot 2016-04-07 at 9.27.36 AM

The editorial is titled “Lèse-Evilism: On the US Election Season”, a pun on lesser evilism that is a bit lost on me since I don’t read French. I took a stab with Google translation and it seems to mean “injured evilism” for what that’s worth. Leaving aside the politics, there is a certain archness in Salvage’s prose that puts me off a bit. For example, this is badly overwritten, reminding me a bit of a Social Text article:

Of course it’s sensible to start from an assumption of the rationality, Machiavellian rigour and strength of our enemies, and their power to push forward their (sometimes conflictual) agenda(s). But Trump is not part of grand Republican strategy. Nor is he precisely a pathology of it. He is an unintended consequence, no ex-nihilo Event but the culmination of a trend. He is an excr/essence thereof – essence and excressence in superposition.

I would have written: “Trump’s candidacy is a challenge to the Republican Party establishment” and left it at that. But that’s a mere peccadillo compared to the article’s main problem, which is to talk about Donald Trump and fascism with little regard to American realities.

Salvage puts its cards on the table: “Our position is that rather than Trump being just another bombastic right-winger or some strange anomaly of this moment, Trumpism is (potentially) nascent fascism. And that both theorising and organising should proceed on that basis.”

To start off, I am not sure if there’s much difference between “potentially” and “nascent” except as a belt-and-suspenders hedging device. “So what are you banging on about with this Trump fascism stuff?” “Well, we said it was only potentially nascent…”

The Salvage editors take exception to what ISO member Jennifer Roesch told Jacobin readers in December 2015: “For these establishment figures, charges of fascism are a cynical ploy to distance their own rhetoric and policies from Trump’s open displays of racism and bigotry. … [I]f our side succumbs to panic about Trump, we miss the greater dangers we face.” Dylan Riley, a UC Berkeley sociologist and author of “The Civic Foundations of Fascism in Europe: Italy, Spain, and Romania 1870-1945” agreed with Roesch: “[W]e should reject absolutely the hysterical lesser-evilism implicit in calling him ‘fascist’ … because it plays into the logic of supporting whomever emerges from the Democratic Party primary”.

So what is Salvage’s response to Roesch and Riley? It is: “But this is a logical fallacy: right-liberalism calls Trump a fascist; we are against right-liberalism; ergo Trump is not a fascist.” Actually, the debate should not pivot around “hysterical lesser-evilism” but the historical antecedents for fascism and whether we are in a period that has anything to do with the rise of Hitler, Mussolini, Franco and Salazar. There is an attempt to engage with that question that is honest enough to admit that it is breaking with Marxist attempts to understand the rise of fascism in the 1920s and 30s:

Too many on the Left are driven by their opposition to this blackmail [of lesser-evilism] to rely on the comforts of outdated theoretical givens on this question, usually as post-facto justification. Especially in the chaotic political context of today, the procrustean bed of ‘classical Marxist’ categories by reference to which the existence or otherwise of some ideal-type ‘classical Fascism’ can be ascertained is decreasingly useful, if indeed it ever was.

Outdated theoretical givens? Procrustean beds of “classical Marxist” categories based on ideal types? Gosh, who wouldn’t want to avoid such tendencies especially given how nasty a procrustean bed was. Know what that was, folks? Procrustes was a figure from Greek mythology who used to cut off the feet of people who were too tall for the beds he kept for his unfortunate guests.

To answer those who insist on Trump being measured against a “Trotskyist check-list”, Salvage says that the standard of comparison for the 20s and 30s should be the KKK rather than the Nazi party. Now this would be an interesting discussion if the Salvage editors were willing to host it. It gets rather complicated in fact. In the 1930s FDR, the Bernie Sanders of his day, was in a bloc with the politicians in the South whose social base was identical to that of the KKK. Was FDR therefore worse than Donald Trump? A social fascist, so to speak? Inquiring minds would love to know.

What it all boils down to is this:

Though there is no official Trumpian black-shirt movement, it seems too sanguine and formalist not to consider the role of Trump-encouraged violence against the left at rallies, and the armed militias which are explicitly supporting him, such as ‘the Oath Keepers’, as potentially nascent forms of such organised violence. In this context, we should not be at all surprised by the announcement in mid-March 2016 of the formation of ‘The Lion’s Guard’ – the name itself redolent of inter-war kitsch – a militia ‘to provide security protection to innocent people who are subject to harassment and assault by Far-left agitators’ at Trump’s rallies. At the time of writing, the group is debating ‘uniform suggestions’.

This sort of febrile fear-mongering is hardly worth commenting on. Once again resorting to the hedging strategy of calling the Oath Keepers a “nascent” fascist group, there is no attempt to put this rightwing group into context. Unlike Golden Dawn or any other European fascist movement, they have yet to violently attack a single African-American. In fact, Morris Dees, the head of the Southern Poverty Law Center, an alarmist outfit of long standing, told Salon that he does not even consider them to be racist.

In terms of the Lion’s Guard, that was disbanded days after it was announced. In fact, it never amounted to anything except a Twitter account. On Twitter, I could have formed an account called The Communist Workers Militia but that does not mean it has any substance. It sounds scary but on the Internet nobody can tell if you are a dog, after all.

Salvage believes that unlike what happened in Europe in the 1920s and 30s, Trumpism could triumph without ruling class support and then rule with their “accommodation”. People like Lindsey Graham might badmouth Trump on CNN or Fox News but once Trump is settled into the White House, he will go along to get along.

I wonder if the Salvage comrades have ever taken five minutes to think of what it would mean to have something roughly equivalent to Nazi Germany with Donald Trump as the American Führer.

These are the sorts of changes we can expect to see:

  • The constitution would be suspended and the USA would be ruled by a single party called The Iron Fist or something along those lines. Centrist Republicans and virtually the entire Democratic Party would be arrested and put into concentration camps along with every “civil society” figure that defended democratic rights. George Soros would be picked up in the middle of the night and hauled off to Rikers Island where he would be put into a cell and beaten mercilessly until he made a confession on TV that Donald Trump was essential to preserve the vital bodily essence of the country as General Jack D. Ripper said in “Doctor Strangelove”.
  • A new government agency would have to be created in order to “purify” the educational system and the information available to the population. All the leftists would be removed from Columbia University, NYU et al and send to prison or killed including Eric Foner and Gayatri Spivak. The media would have to be revamped totally. The NY Times, the Washington Post, CNN, MSNBC, et al would be taken over by Trump loyalists who would now write articles that extol the maximum leader’s every policy decision. Amazon.com would be put under the control of a government official who would go through the database and delete every “dangerous” book starting with Noam Chomsky and drilling down to those that are even a bit questionable like The Hunger Games novels or Allen Ginsberg’s poetry books.
  • The military would be brought into line with new fascist realities. Those Generals who have made statements about refusing to carry out illegal orders under a Trump presidency would be rounded up and either imprisoned or killed. They would be replaced by those who were obedient to the maximum leader and willing to carry out his instructions that NATO be liquidated. (Of course, there are any number of CounterPunch authors who might cheer over this.)
  • The cops and army would invade Latino neighborhoods and round up people without proper papers and send them back to where they came from. Ooops. I forgot. That is current policy under Obama.


  1. I can’t understand the fanatic fear and response. Trump doesn’t even have the support of 50% of the Republican Party membership and the Republican Party membership amounts to much less than 50% of the population anyway.

    Comment by Paul from PA — April 7, 2016 @ 6:14 pm

  2. It’s a pun on “lèse-majesté”, which was the crime of lacking respect to the monarch. Now I’ll actually read the rest of the article 🙂

    Comment by Nathan — April 7, 2016 @ 7:16 pm

  3. God, that Salvage writing style. Just dreadful. Louis, I have to say, besides taking Salvage to task, you have written a post that had me laughing out loud! The dog cartoon is great. As is “belt and suspenders hedging device.” Now, if Trump fails to get the nomination and it goes to Cruz, who is probably worse than Trump, because he believes all the insane things he says, we will be hearing the same stuff. Of course, Cruz would have to disband Congress to get his program enacted. Lindsay Graham said that if someone murdered Cruz on the Senate floor and Senators were the murder trial jury, no one would vote to convict!

    Comment by michael yates — April 7, 2016 @ 9:29 pm

  4. Liberals and Stalinists have pretty much made the word ‘fascism’ a synonym for ‘bad’. Don’t expect any serious analysis from these quarters.

    The only (faint) analogy between the Trump phenomenon and fascism is the (again, faint) analogy between the US today and pre-Hitler Germany, which was suffering a severe economic crisis which made free-market capitalism look like a loser even to broad sections of the middle class, combined with the national humiliation of a country that had been knocked off its place near the top of the ladder. So Hitler cleverly combine a demagogic left-wing social program with the promise to restore national greatness, plus a paramilitary streetfighting apparatus.

    But we’re still a long way from American fascism. For one thing, the US does not have a strong trade union movement, a mass socialist party, and a serious (small-mass?) Communist Party to be destroyed, as was the case in Germany. A closer analogy might be found in the Americas: essayists in search of a topic for their next article should examine the Peronist phenomenon.

    One more point, often overlooked by hysterics. Political power comes out of the barrel of a gun, as someone said An angry super-nationalist all-white America could be a scary phenomenon indeed. But not only is the US not that, if you have a look at its armed forces, you’ll notice that about 20% of its officer corps, and 30% of the ranks overall, are racial minorities. Had the Wehrmacht had that proportion of Jews in it, history would have been very different.

    Comment by doug1943 — April 8, 2016 @ 6:34 am

  5. The ethnic composition of the U.S. military, IMHO, merely signals an extension of or complement to the mass-incarceration policy whereby African Americans, Hispanics, Native Americans, and poor whites are already being controlled. The military, for many, represents the sole path to a career and a “normal” American life. People who see things this way may embrace a “warrior” ideology and feel deep loyalty. In any case, control in the military is very effectively contained within the chain of command, and once you are in, any revolutionary tendencies are likely to be quite effectively stifled.

    People on the Left should not take too much comfort in military multi-ethnicity. The libertarian fiction of the “all-volunteer force” may be a better strategy for control than the democratic universal mobilization implied in the formerly sacred military draft.

    Our masters made a smart move when they abandoned that.

    Comment by Pete Glosser — April 8, 2016 @ 2:30 pm

  6. “People on the Left should not take too much comfort in military multi-ethnicity. The libertarian fiction of the “all-volunteer force” may be a better strategy for control than the democratic universal mobilization implied in the formerly sacred military draft.”

    I am sure that it is.

    And it is one of the perverse achievements of multiculturalism, the use of it to market our imperial interventions, as I wrote about years ago when Ronald Takaki died:

    “There is an irony in this. Historians like Schlesinger, and the American Studies professors that I encountered, were, no doubt, proponents of American exceptionalism, a belief that the US is a unique society that should be emulated around the world. Takaki, quite clearly, was not. Yet, it was Takaki, and the historians and sociologists that brought the experiences of women, people of color, immigrants, workers and poor people into the academic mainstream, in short, all those people who lived their lives outside the elite histories of government, geopolitics and economic development, that facilitated the creation of a new American identity. The current version of American exceptionalism now in vogue is one of inclusion, one in which the social experiences of people of various races, cultures, gender, even sexual orientation and religions are recognized, and yet remain fused in a decentralized, but firm, form of nationalism. The election of Barack Obama enshrined it as semi-official doctrine.

    But the irony is more insidious than just this paradox. The new multicultural American identity, co-authored by Takaki and others, constitutes a critical ideological support for the so-called war on terror which includes the invasion, and ongoing occupations, of Iraq and Afghanistan. Our culture is purportedly inclusive, tolerant and, by and large, non-violent, in its resolution of domestic conflict. Their culture, by contrast, is not. Our multiculturalism is contrasted with the inherent violence of Islam and the peoples of the Middle East and Central Asia as a justification for perpetual military intervention and custodial oversight.

    Needless to say, this is an extremely reductionist perspective about the US, the Middle East and Central Asia, but it is this, more than anything, I think, that explains the inability of many moderates and liberals to dissociate themselves from American militarism. It also creates doubt among non-whites that might otherwise be predisposed, in reliance upon memories of past national liberation movements, to oppose it. And, if there were any question about the proprietary of the project, just look at our military as opposed to their fighters, insurgents, or just plain terrorists. Our military is multi-colored, and even permits Arab Americans and Muslims to serve (only gays and lesbians are excluded as a result of an antiquated social policy that even the multiculturalists couldn’t expunge), while the resistance is supposedly organized along lines of religious and ethnic intolerance. Again, simplistic and reductionist, but hard to effectively refute within the confines of limited American discourse.”

    Comment by Richard Estes — April 9, 2016 @ 5:17 am

  7. The problem with the Nazi’s, other than the obvious, is that they taint our view of fascism. They are a caricature we judge all fascists by. But modern fascism is just that, modern in both image and policy. So we have to reconstitute fascism into its modern manifestation. I think that if we do this we should be more alarmed that we perhaps are. Though that isn’t me saying watch out Trump is dangerous, but more, have you seen the policies that the so called liberals are putting forward! Fascism is the new liberalism!

    “if Trump fails to get the nomination and it goes to Cruz, who is probably worse than Trump, because he believes all the insane things he says”

    I think if Trump says he wants to ban all Muslims entering the US we should take his word for it. We should also ask why his mixture of bigotry and ignorance chimes so much with certain sections of the US population. If Trump is anything he is a racist and so are his supporters. His remarks are staggeringly ignorant and he relies on the ignorance of his supporters. One example is when he falsely claimed there were no women or children on the refugee boats coming into Europe, fleeing liberal humanist intervention! This kind of bare faced lying is the hallmark of a right wing politician, and one that feeds off racism.

    It should be noted that Trump supporters have attacked African Americans, for example when there were protests at a Trump rally. No in this case I have some sympathy with Trump’s supporters, because if protesters were trying to break up a political meeting that I had attended I would want to punch them in the face to!

    However, I don’t think it would take much to push the US, or any other bourgeois society for that matter, into the hands of the Iron fist party. Germany exceptionalism is as big a myth as US exceptionalism!

    Comment by Simon Provertier — April 11, 2016 @ 9:39 am

  8. Perhaps the real question with regard to “fascism” in the U.S. at present is whether the ruling classes need or want to engage the issues of control involved in the top-to-bottom mobilization of society that “classic” fascism requires.

    Such mobilizations, simply by virtue of their mass character, entail a certain unintended threat of actual democracy, however marginal, which need not be incurred if there are no powerful, mobilized forces on the Left to contend with. There are certainly no such forces on the left in the U.S. at present.

    As long as control is assured, it’s far better for the Ronald Rumps of the world to confuse, bemuse, and divide than to organize from top to bottom as Mussolini and Hitler did. This is one of the reasons why, setting aside his obvious weakness of intellect and total lack of character (swindler, rapist, racist, physical coward, and bully that he is), Ronald Rump so glories in never making sense or following a connected train of thought for more than a few seconds at a time. Fascism is and has to be intellectually incoherent, but its organizational aims are clear. Rump’s are inscrutable.

    This is particularly true when de facto significant forces of regimentation already exist (mass incarceration of minorities, the “all volunteer” military as the only career path for many, the “two-party” political system with its lack of real alternatives, and the mostly fictitious threat of “terrorism” combined with the “elite” paramilitary police forces that purportedly exist to contain it).

    Much of the power that “classic” fascism must first seize and then consolidate is already firmly in place, and–from the Rump perspective–is better obfuscated by a layer of neoliberal, libertarian, and/or religious bullshit than advertised, fascist-wise, under some overt gospel of “totalitarianism” demanding universal assent as suchand thereby risking actual rebellion.

    Comment by Pete Glosser — April 11, 2016 @ 6:24 pm

  9. Peter,

    The Nazi’s were quite a disparate group initially. Events ensured they became organised and coherent and more to the point were seen to be more organised and coherent (it is doubtful that in reality they were more coherent!).

    What we should look out for are events!

    I pretty much reject the threat from the left idea of fascism, I think it is more along the lines of a threat to petty bourgeois personal wealth and a threat from below, e.g. immigrants, lumpen elements and the low paid.

    A threat from the left will of course court a response but for that response to take on a fascist form it needs something other than the threat itself.

    This mean that we shouldn’t be looking at the strength of the left as a signal of a danger of fascism but economic and cultural indicators.

    The main political indicator that Germany was in danger of flirting with fascism was not the strength of the left but the strength of the Nazi party!

    Comment by Simon Provertier — April 12, 2016 @ 4:40 pm

  10. […] is fascist. That’s nothing new. Frankly, it is better than being so far left that nothing is fascist. I’d rather have some false positive reports than never being on the lookout and getting those […]

    Pingback by Trump, Part 2: Ur-fascist – limping retribution — August 17, 2016 @ 12:18 am

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