Fighting Fascism and the Ku Klux Klan: Lessons from the New Communist Movement

In the wake of Char­lottesville, main­stream news out­lets scram­bled to trace the ori­gins of antifa, that dif­fuse set of orga­ni­za­tions, col­lec­tives, and affin­i­ty groups will­ing to open­ly and force­ful­ly oppose the far right. The mil­i­tan­cy and self-defense tac­tics of antifa clear­ly posed a thorny dilem­ma for many com­men­ta­tors, so much so that major news­pa­pers devot­ed slight­ly more space to con­demn­ing the “dan­gers” of anti-fas­cism than the actions of actu­al fas­cists. There are rea­sons for this con­fu­sion, since the recent his­tor­i­cal tra­jec­to­ry of anti-fas­cism in the Unit­ed States resem­bles a zig-zag motion rather than a straight line. On the one hand, there is the con­ver­gence between anti-fas­cist and anti-racist strate­gies due to what Mark Bray calls the “cross-pol­li­na­tion between the Klan and neo-Nazi groups” that began to take form in the 1970s. On the oth­er hand, as George Cic­cariel­lo-Maher relayed to the New York Times, par­tic­i­pants in anti-fas­cist groups come from a diverse array of polit­i­cal and cul­tur­al cur­rents on the left, with “roots in the straight-edge punk rock music scene, the anti-glob­al­iza­tion protests of the 1990s and the Occu­py Wall Street move­ment.”

But these help­ful cor­rec­tives to the pop­u­lar nar­ra­tive around antifa also over­look a cru­cial link in the chain, name­ly the anti-fas­cist the­o­ry and prac­tice of The New Com­mu­nist Move­ment. The NCM was an aggre­ga­tion of Marx­ist-Lenin­ist orga­ni­za­tions active from the ear­ly 1970s to the mid-1980s.1 Emerg­ing from the breakup of the pre­dom­i­nant­ly white New Left (espe­cial­ly Stu­dents for a Demo­c­ra­t­ic Soci­ety) and the turn to Mao­ism on the part of lib­er­a­tion move­ment activists in U.S. com­mu­ni­ties of col­or, the NCM saw itself as heir to the rev­o­lu­tion­ary com­mu­nist tra­di­tion, aban­doned and betrayed by the mori­bund, revi­sion­ist Com­mu­nist Par­ty USA.

The NCM strong­ly iden­ti­fied with inter­na­tion­al strug­gles against fas­cism in the 1930s and 1940s – the Span­ish Civ­il War, the defense of Ethiopia, the French Pop­u­lar Front, the Chi­nese rev­o­lu­tion, the resis­tance move­ments in World War II. Impor­tant, too, were anti-fas­cist and anti-racist cam­paigns clos­er to home: oppo­si­tion to lynch­ing and Jim Crow, the Scotts­boro Boys’ defense, the Abra­ham Lin­coln Brigades, the fight to inte­grate the labor move­ment and pro­mote black lead­er­ship with­in it.

For the NCM, anti-fas­cism was nev­er a mat­ter of his­tor­i­cal nos­tal­gia. Many activists devot­ed untold hours to fight­ing fas­cism and white suprema­cy and to recruit­ing oth­ers to the cause. Some, as in the case of the five mem­bers of the Com­mu­nist Work­ers Par­ty (CWP) killed in Greens­boro, North Car­oli­na in 1979, gave their lives to this strug­gle.

The his­to­ry of the NCM’s engage­ment with fas­cism and groups like the KKK is a com­plex one, to which this short arti­cle can­not do jus­tice. Nonethe­less, at a time when issues of fight­ing fas­cism, Nazis, and the alt-right are of con­cern to so many, a look back at some of the lessons of the NCM expe­ri­ence may prove use­ful for today’s activists.

At the same time, we must be clear about the lim­its of this his­tor­i­cal read­ing. We are in a new con­junc­ture – the KKK, Nazis and alt-right of today are not the same as their fore­bears of the NCM era – and nei­ther is the left that seeks to con­front them. We are in urgent need of an all-sided analy­sis of the cur­rent right-wing resur­gence in its full com­plex­i­ty, of its com­po­nent ele­ments and their inter-rela­tion­ships, of how they inter­face with and against the cap­i­tal­ist state. Such an analy­sis must be ground­ed in advanced the­o­ry and it must under­stand the dif­fer­ence between “fas­cism” as a rig­or­ous con­cept and “fas­cism” as a mere rhetor­i­cal device. From such an analy­sis the strat­e­gy and tac­tics nec­es­sary to con­front the spe­cif­ic threats we now face can be devel­oped. The NCM era has lessons to offer, and may pro­vide us with some use­ful sign­posts on our way for­ward, but it can nev­er be a sub­sti­tute for real knowl­edge of the present moment – a con­crete analy­sis of a con­crete sit­u­a­tion, which, as Lenin reminds us, is the liv­ing soul of Marx­ism.

The NCM and the Problem of Fascism

How many sin­cere mil­i­tants are there who have expe­ri­enced and fought against the night­mare of fas­cism, and become so obsessed by it that their auto­mat­ic reflex is to see the spec­tre on every side? – Nicos Poulantzas2

Any­one who reads NCM lit­er­a­ture will be struck by the fre­quen­cy with which ref­er­ences to fas­cism appear in reportage, polemics, and sub­stan­tive analy­ses.3 The NCM saw fas­cism in racist and reac­tionary groups on the far right, but also in the dom­i­nant eco­nom­ic and polit­i­cal insti­tu­tions of Amer­i­can cap­i­tal­ism. Repeat­ed­ly debat­ed were ques­tions about the rela­tion­ship between these two sources, their rel­a­tive pow­er, the seri­ous­ness of the fas­cist dan­ger, and the best ways to fight it.

In his 1977 essay “Fas­cism and Ide­ol­o­gy” Ernesto Laclau lament­ed the fact that while post-WW II stud­ies enor­mous­ly aug­ment­ed our accu­mu­lat­ed his­tor­i­cal data on the fas­cist phe­nom­e­non, “we have not made a par­al­lel advance in devel­op­ing the the­o­ret­i­cal con­cepts with which to under­stand it.”4 This the­o­ret­i­cal inad­e­qua­cy was cer­tain­ly demon­strat­ed in the writ­ings of most NCM groups whose ana­lyt­i­cal arse­nal on fas­cism was lim­it­ed almost entire­ly to Geor­gi Dimitrov’s speech­es to the Sev­enth Con­gress of the Com­mu­nist Inter­na­tion­al5 and the British Com­mu­nist R. Palme Dutt’s ten­den­tious work, Fas­cism and Social Rev­o­lu­tion.6 What­ev­er their val­ue in the 1930s, these mate­ri­als were woe­ful­ly inad­e­quate to com­ing to terms with Amer­i­can real­i­ty in the 1970s and 1980s, as some of the more astute NCM groups, like the Sojourn­er Truth Orga­ni­za­tion (STO), acknowl­edged.7

Unfor­tu­nate­ly, most NCM groups, guid­ed as they were by a rigid and mechan­i­cal con­cep­tion of anti-revi­sion­ism, were inor­di­nate­ly sus­pi­cious of con­tem­po­rary inno­va­tions in Marx­ism. As a result, impor­tant advances in the Marx­ist the­o­ry of pol­i­tics, of the state, of fas­cism and author­i­tar­i­an sta­tism which appeared dur­ing the life of the NCM, includ­ing the work of Nicos Poulantzas, Stu­art Hall, Bob Jes­sop and Laclau, as well as the Eng­lish lan­guage pub­li­ca­tion of selec­tions from Gramsci’s Prison Note­books, had vir­tu­al­ly no impact on the move­ment, to its detri­ment.8

There are three moments in NCM his­to­ry when con­cern over the issue of fas­cism was espe­cial­ly pro­nounced: (1) the Water­gate cri­sis and the bat­tle to bring down Pres­i­dent Richard Nixon; (2) the con­fronta­tion with white suprema­cists in Greens­boro in which the five mem­bers of the CWP were killed; and (3) the first elec­tion of Ronald Rea­gan. Let’s exam­ine each of them in turn.

Watergate and the Impeachment of Richard Nixon

The Water­gate cri­sis arose out of Nixon’s autho­riza­tion of a wide range of ille­gal meth­ods to spy on and dis­rupt the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty dur­ing the 1972 elec­tions. While ille­gal­i­ty had always been a part of bour­geois elec­toral pol­i­tics in the US, Nixon took the prac­tice to new and dan­ger­ous lev­els. Water­gate became a con­sti­tu­tion­al cri­sis when the pres­i­dent tried to cov­er up the total­i­ty of the affair by stonewalling Con­gress and attempt­ing to fire the spe­cial pros­e­cu­tor appoint­ed to inves­ti­gate it.

Water­gate was an ear­ly test for the NCM. The larg­er groups were only a few years old when Water­gate began and had lim­it­ed pri­or expe­ri­ences apply­ing their new­ly acquired Marx­ism-Lenin­ism to com­plex nation­al prob­lems. To its cred­it, the NCM did not view the Water­gate affair in iso­la­tion. It sit­u­at­ed it in the over­all con­text of the decline of US impe­ri­al­ism, the 1973–74 reces­sion, the grow­ing struc­tur­al cri­sis of the Amer­i­can econ­o­my and the impend­ing defeat of the Unit­ed States in Viet­nam. But, in the absence of an under­stand­ing of the rel­a­tive auton­o­my of the polit­i­cal and crit­i­cal con­cepts like con­junc­ture, hege­mo­ny, and pow­er bloc, the NCM lacked “the the­o­ret­i­cal capac­i­ty to pen­e­trate beneath the actu­al course of events to the more fun­da­men­tal mech­a­nisms and causal pow­ers” that gen­er­at­ed them.9 Many groups resort­ed instead to a crude­ly instru­men­tal­ist approach­es that sought to tie the two con­tend­ing forces – the Nixon White House and Nixon’s oppo­nents – in a direct, unmedi­at­ed way to spe­cif­ic cap­i­tal­ist eco­nom­ic inter­ests that were sup­pos­ed­ly sup­port­ing them.

The Pro­gres­sive Labor Par­ty iden­ti­fied Water­gate as a fight between “old mon­ey” and “new mon­ey,” a mod­el vir­tu­al­ly iden­ti­cal to the one pro­mot­ed by one of their most vicious crit­ics, the pop­u­lar author Kirk­patrick Sale (a com­par­i­son that was crit­i­cal­ly not­ed by one of PL’s own dis­sent­ing mem­bers).10 The Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Union (RU) saw the hand of the “Rock­e­feller sec­tion of monop­oly cap­i­tal” in the events that drove Spiro Agnew from office and secured the appoint­ment of Nel­son Rock­e­feller as Ger­ald Ford’s vice-pres­i­dent.11 The Work­ers View­point Orga­ni­za­tion (WVO) referred to the “Nixon gang and all his behind-the-scenes boss­es like ITT and oth­er busi­ness­es.”12

And what about fas­cism – where did it fit into this pic­ture? Vir­tu­al­ly every NCM group saw in Water­gate the men­ace of fas­cism. The Com­men­ta­tor Col­lec­tive affirmed that the “con­tra­dic­tion between democ­ra­cy and fas­cism was the prin­ci­pal one in the Unit­ed States today.”13 The Octo­ber League (OL) alleged that “Water­gate def­i­nite­ly pos­es new threats of a fas­cist men­ace,” giv­en that the “most reac­tionary, fas­cist sec­tions of monop­oly cap­i­tal are now try­ing to use the con­tro­ver­sy and insta­bil­i­ty asso­ci­at­ed with Water­gate to con­sol­i­date their pow­er.”14 The Com­mu­nist Col­lec­tive of the Chi­cano Nation saw in Water­gate, “a def­i­nite move on the part of cer­tain rul­ing-class cir­cles towards fas­cism.”15 The Com­mu­nist League not­ed “the fas­cist offen­sive which Nixon has launched,” but added for good mea­sure that “both he and his bour­geois ‘crit­ics’” rep­re­sent­ed “the spec­tor [sic] of fas­cism.”16

None of these groups attempt­ed to sub­stan­ti­ate their claims about fas­cism with even the rudi­ments of a rig­or­ous, com­pre­hen­sive analy­sis: what were the prin­ci­pal social and polit­i­cal con­tra­dic­tions involved that were prov­ing insol­u­ble with­in the para­me­ters of bour­geois democ­ra­cy and why?; In what ways would a fas­cist alter­na­tive pro­vide an effec­tive solu­tion and for whom? Such lines of inquiry were left unex­plored; and for all of dif­fer­ent orga­ni­za­tions’ alleged reliance on Dim­itrov and Dutt, there was only the most cur­so­ry effort in one or two instances to draw on these sources to make their case.17

One promi­nent group did reject the loose talk about Water­gate and fas­cism – the WVO. It refused to “sound the false alarm that fas­cism is at the thresh­old,”18 affirm­ing “the strug­gles in the bour­geoisie were nev­er a bat­tle between the fas­cist and more lib­er­al sec­tions of the bour­geoisie.”19 The WVO was one of the few groups able to rec­og­nize that Water­gate demon­strat­ed, not the prox­im­i­ty of fas­cism, but that “there is still plen­ty of maneu­ver­abil­i­ty left to bour­geois democ­ra­cy, even to the point of get­ting the great­est pres­i­den­tial vote-get­ter to resign some 20 months after his land­slide.”20

Dif­fer­ences over the per­ceived imme­di­a­cy of the fas­cist dan­ger dic­tat­ed the NCM’s strate­gic respons­es to it. The Com­men­ta­tor Col­lec­tive, hav­ing defined the strug­gle as one between bour­geois democ­ra­cy and fas­cism, advo­cat­ed a revival of the 1930’s Unit­ed Front Against Fas­cism (UFAF) and a col­lab­o­ra­tion between the left and pro-demo­c­ra­t­ic forces in oth­er class­es, includ­ing amenable sec­tions of the bour­geoisie.21 Oth­er groups lim­it­ed them­selves to pro­mot­ing mass mobi­liza­tion against Nixon. The OL called for a broad move­ment “so that the pres­sure remains on the Con­gress to act.”22 The RU stat­ed, “The kick­ing out of Richard Nixon has become a mass demand of the Amer­i­can peo­ple. The RU sup­ports this demand and believes it is very impor­tant now to mobi­lize mass strug­gle in sup­port of it, around the gen­er­al slo­gan THROW THE BUM OUT! ORGANIZE TO FIGHT!”23

Because the WVO reject­ed view­ing Water­gate through the lens of fas­cism, it pro­duced a more nuanced strate­gic response to the affair and the strug­gle over Nixon’s impeach­ment. First, it sharply crit­i­cized the advo­ca­cy of the Unit­ed Front Against Fas­cism, charg­ing that the strat­e­gy had been pro­duced in a spe­cif­ic set of his­tor­i­cal cir­cum­stances and that it was a trav­es­ty of Marx­ism-Lenin­ism to think that it could sim­ply be revived in a very dif­fer­ent con­text. Rather than see­ing anti-fas­cism itself as the over­all strat­e­gy, WVO insist­ed that it was more appro­pri­ate­ly a tac­ti­cal com­po­nent of a broad­er anti-cap­i­tal­ist strat­e­gy:

The fight against the men­ace of fas­cism is and can only be one com­po­nent part of our imme­di­ate strug­gle to oppose monop­oly cap­i­tal­ism, to fight against the attacks on our stan­dard of liv­ing, to defend our demo­c­ra­t­ic rights (which includes the rights of the nation­al­i­ties and minori­ties, women’s rights and judi­cial rights), and to oppose wars of aggres­sion and to sup­port the oppressed coun­tries around the world.24

Sec­ond, the WVO cast a crit­i­cal eye on the actu­al unfold­ing of the Water­gate affair, not­ing that bour­geois forces had ini­ti­at­ed the impeach­ment process and that, while impeach­ment was sup­port­ed by mass sen­ti­ment, this sen­ti­ment had not devel­oped into an actu­al mass move­ment. The WVO agreed that it was nec­es­sary to sup­port the cam­paign to force Nixon out and that left efforts had to be devel­oped inde­pen­dent­ly of the dom­i­nant motion with­in the rul­ing class that was dri­ving the impeach­ment process for­ward. But it ulti­mate­ly rec­og­nized the lim­it­ed role the left had played in the entire affair. “In the final analy­sis,” the WVO argued, “Nixon was forced to resign by over­whelm­ing opin­ion in both hous­es of Con­gress and by the fact that oppos­ing groups of monop­oly cap­i­tal­ists had whit­tled away at his polit­i­cal ‘base’,” not by a pop­u­lar move­ment.25

The Greensboro Massacre

If Water­gate chal­lenged the NCM over ques­tions of fas­cism with­in the cap­i­tal­ist state, a con­fronta­tion with the Ku Klux Klan forced it to recon­sid­er the prob­lem of white suprema­cist vio­lence and fas­cism as a social move­ment.

That the Klan was a dan­ger­ous fas­cist orga­ni­za­tion was accept­ed wis­dom in the NCM. Even groups like STO, which had devot­ed con­sid­er­able crit­i­cal atten­tion to the issue of fas­cism and its his­to­ry, had no trou­ble assert­ing, that “Today the Ku Klux Klan is prob­a­bly… the main face of mil­i­tant fas­cism in the Unit­ed States.”26 Just how far some NCM activists were pre­pared to go in oppos­ing the Klan was demon­strat­ed in Greens­boro, North Car­oli­na in Novem­ber 1979. Here, local activists from the WVO, which had recent­ly recon­sti­tut­ed itself as the Com­mu­nist Work­ers Par­ty (CWP), were deter­mined to prove their van­guard role in the strug­gle against white suprema­cy by tak­ing the KKK head on.

Pre­vi­ous­ly, in July 1979, CWP mem­bers had suc­cess­ful­ly helped dis­rupt a Klan event – the screen­ing of D. W. Griffith’s 1915 silent film The Birth of a Nation – in Chi­na Grove, North Car­oli­na. In the months that fol­lowed, the ver­bal war between the two groups con­tin­ued to esca­late. In Octo­ber 1979 the North Car­oli­na CWP pro­posed to stage a march and ral­ly against the Klan in Greens­boro on Novem­ber 3rd. It was called the “Death to the Klan” march and the CWP pub­licly taunt­ed the KKK, call­ing them racist cow­ards and dar­ing them to show up.27

The CWP applied for and obtained a per­mit from the Greens­boro police for the march, which was sched­uled to start in Morn­ing­side Homes, a pre­dom­i­nant­ly Afro-Amer­i­can hous­ing project, and pro­ceed from there to the Greens­boro City Hall. In order to secure the per­mit the CWP pro­vid­ed the police with a map of the march route and agreed not to bring weapons to the event. Unbe­knownst to them, the police fur­nished a copy of the map to the KKK. As the march was get­ting start­ed, a con­tin­gent of Klan mem­bers and Nazis attacked, open­ing fire and killing five activists, four of them lead­ers or mem­bers of the CWP, who were unpre­pared to defend them­selves. The police delib­er­ate­ly absent­ed them­selves from the scene, allow­ing the KKK and Nazis to com­mit mur­der and escape with impuni­ty. Sub­se­quent lit­i­ga­tion revealed exten­sive police involve­ment with the local Klan and the fact that it had been infil­trat­ed by agents of the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment who knew about the planned attack but did noth­ing to stop it.

Why did the CWP mis­cal­cu­late so bad­ly in its prepa­ra­tion for the Novem­ber 3rd march? It cer­tain­ly wasn’t because of the­o­ret­i­cal illu­sions about the nature of the Klan. The CWP rec­og­nized that the KKK was a vio­lent ter­ror­ist orga­ni­za­tion. It acknowl­edged the numer­ous links between the Klan and fed­er­al and local law enforce­ment, not­ing in one of its fly­ers that “police pro­tect the Klan; many are Klan mem­bers.”28 Yet it still vol­un­tar­i­ly fur­nished the Greens­boro police with the march route and agreed to their demands that mem­bers and sup­port­ers come to the event unarmed.

The Greens­boro CWP’s prob­lem was a rad­i­cal dis­con­nect between what it knew in the­o­ry and how it behaved in prac­tice, with all the dis­as­trous results that fol­lowed. This dis­con­nect was ful­ly con­firmed lat­er by the CWP itself. In her polit­i­cal mem­oir, Love and Rev­o­lu­tion, Greens­boro CWP leader Signe Waller – wife of mas­sacre vic­tim James Waller – wrote that on the eve of the march local com­mu­ni­ty activists and Morn­ing­side Homes’ res­i­dents expressed strong reser­va­tions to the CWP about what they said was “inad­e­quate secu­ri­ty and a fail­ure to appre­ci­ate ful­ly the threat posed by the Klan.”29

Describ­ing the think­ing of the Greens­boro CWP lead­er­ship itself Waller explains why these con­cerns weren’t tak­en seri­ous­ly: Nel­son John­son (a promi­nent local CWP leader) thought it “not at all like­ly that the Klan would come to Greens­boro”; “None of us … antic­i­pat­ed col­lu­sion between the Klan and the police”; “None of us imag­ined that the police would not be there, that they would arrange to stay away.” Waller con­cludes: “We knew about Klan vio­lence and gov­ern­ment col­lu­sion from our study of his­to­ry, but we failed to apply the lessons” and to “grasp their rel­e­vance to our own sit­u­a­tion.”30

In the after­math of the Greens­boro mas­sacre, many oth­er NCM groups were reluc­tant to open­ly crit­i­cize the CWP. But the gen­er­al con­clu­sion drawn was that seri­ous ultra-left errors had been com­mit­ted. The best cri­tique of the Greens­boro events was pre­pared by two oth­er NCM groups with mem­bers in North Car­oli­na: the Amil­car Cabral/Paul Robe­son Col­lec­tive and the Greens­boro Col­lec­tive. Their con­clu­sions were unspar­ing: “Novem­ber 3rd and the sequence of events lead­ing up to it was an exer­cise in ‘left’ adven­tur­ist sui­cide. Entranced by their fan­tasies of them­selves as rev­o­lu­tion­ary heroes, the WVO engaged in a wild escapade that was just as suc­cess­ful in achiev­ing their own mur­ders as if they had set out with that pur­pose in mind.”31

Elab­o­rat­ing on this cri­tique, the two groups charged that the CWP’s “Death to the Klan” march did not emerge out of or reflect a gen­uine mass strug­gle in the local black com­mu­ni­ty. Instead, it was car­ried out by the CWP entire­ly on its own in the hope that exem­plary action on the part of a Com­mu­nist van­guard would cat­alyze the black mass­es to ral­ly to its cause. Instead of organ­ic lead­er­ship of the mass­es, it was an exam­ple of a self-pro­claimed van­guard try­ing to sub­sti­tute itself for the mass­es.

Greens­boro was clear proof – if any was need­ed – that, giv­en the numer­ous ties between the KKK and the repres­sive appa­ra­tus­es of the cap­i­tal­ist state, it can­not be suc­cess­ful­ly com­bat­ted mil­i­tar­i­ly by the left alone. Only a pow­er­ful mass move­ment can be an effec­tive check on Klan activ­i­ty. Front­line news­pa­per summed up this les­son some years lat­er:

Defeat­ing racism, repres­sion – and fas­cism – involves devel­op­ing slo­gans, cam­paigns and actions that step-by-step forge a broad and durable pro­gres­sive front. Prepa­ra­tion for direct, even vio­lent, con­fronta­tion is part of that process, but its cen­ter­piece must be a strat­e­gy to iso­late the ene­my polit­i­cal­ly and ide­o­log­i­cal­ly and to con­stant­ly raise the con­scious­ness of the people’s forces.

Judged by this stan­dard, the CWP’s approach to anti-Klan work was pre­cise­ly emp­ty brava­do. Slo­gans such as “Out­law the Klan” or “Stop the Klan” have the poten­tial to mobi­lize a broad front to deny this fas­cist group any rights what­so­ev­er, and to pro­duce tac­tics that are both mil­i­tant and place the Klan on the defen­sive. But “Death to the Klan” as one’s fun­da­men­tal orga­niz­ing prin­ci­ple directs work only towards those imme­di­ate­ly pre­pared for a mil­i­tary con­fronta­tion and leads to tac­tics in which the anti-racist forces, under present con­di­tions, are cer­tain to be at a dis­ad­van­tage. One can take note of the indi­vid­ual courage of some who pur­sue this course, but it is irre­spon­si­ble not to simul­ta­ne­ous­ly point out the fun­da­men­tal polit­i­cal bank­rupt­cy of such a strat­e­gy.32

Events in Greens­boro, the out­rage that fol­lowed, and sub­se­quent lit­i­ga­tion did much to pro­mote an upsurge in anti-Klan orga­niz­ing and activism. The NCM played an active role in many of these efforts. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, less ener­gy was devot­ed to cre­ative Marx­ist the­o­ret­i­cal work on the nature of the Klan, fas­cism and white suprema­cy.

A pass­ing ref­er­ence in a STO polemic by Don Hamerquist indi­cates the direc­tion such the­o­ret­i­cal work might have tak­en. In Fas­cism in the U.S.?, Hamerquist refers to the “unique and defin­ing char­ac­ter­is­tic of U.S. cap­i­tal­ist rule” name­ly the sys­tem­at­ic oppres­sion of peo­ple of col­or “along with, and to a degree as the con­di­tion of, the devel­op­ment of bour­geois demo­c­ra­t­ic forms lim­it­ed, pri­mar­i­ly to the white pop­u­la­tion.” This white suprema­cist bour­geois demo­c­ra­t­ic rule, he argues, is “the only democ­ra­cy which has ever exist­ed in this coun­try with the excep­tion of a brief peri­od in the South fol­low­ing the Civ­il War.”33

If we take this insight as our start­ing point, the inad­e­qua­cies of char­ac­ter­iz­ing the Ku Klux Klan as fas­cist become appar­ent. The fas­cist groups to which the Klan is usu­al­ly com­pared – Mussolini’s Black Shirts and Hitler’s Stormtroop­ers (SA) – were unique­ly 20th cen­tu­ry phe­nom­e­na, para-mil­i­tary for­ma­tions aris­ing from organ­ic crises in Italy and Ger­many which func­tioned as shock troops for the replace­ment of bour­geois demo­c­ra­t­ic regimes with fas­cist ones. They exist­ed in vio­lent oppo­si­tion to estab­lished bour­geois demo­c­ra­t­ic norms and with the stat­ed aim of abol­ish­ing them.

The Klan has a dif­fer­ent his­to­ry in an entire­ly dif­fer­ent con­text, begin­ning in the 19th cen­tu­ry South in the after­math of the Civ­il War. Even in defeat, the South­ern planter rul­ing class and its allies retained much of their eco­nom­ic pow­er, but had lost dom­i­na­tion of the black labor force and of state pow­er, par­tic­u­lar­ly its repres­sive appa­ra­tus­es. To recov­er polit­i­cal pow­er, to impose social and labor con­trol over the new­ly freed slaves and secure hege­mo­ny over the white mass­es, new insti­tu­tions were required. The KKK was one of the most impor­tant of these. Its pur­pose was not, as with the Black Shirts and SA, to estab­lish a new fas­cist regime – fas­cism was then unknown – but to re-estab­lish the white suprema­cist, whites-only bour­geois demo­c­ra­t­ic polit­i­cal sys­tem which had exist­ed in the South pri­or to the Civ­il War.

With the end of Recon­struc­tion, the South­ern planter class once again exer­cised polit­i­cal pow­er in the for­mer Con­fed­er­ate states. But the Klan did not dis­ap­pear. It con­tin­ued as an essen­tial but unof­fi­cial com­po­nent of the state repres­sive appa­ra­tus­es of the “New South.” It still had a role to play: prac­tic­ing racist ter­ror against African Amer­i­cans and promoting/coercing white sol­i­dar­i­ty. Through­out the 20th Cen­tu­ry the Klan’s goal was not to over­throw Amer­i­can democ­ra­cy but to be its bul­wark, a bul­wark and pro­mot­er of the unique­ly Amer­i­can Jim Crow form of democ­ra­cy. The Klan is not the momen­tary prod­uct of an organ­ic cri­sis which can only be solved by the extra­or­di­nary mea­sures of a fas­cist regime; it is part and par­cel of the nor­mal oper­a­tions of America’s racial­ized demo­c­ra­t­ic order. Its mem­bers are not shock troops to be thrown into bat­tle against the bour­geois demo­c­ra­t­ic state, but a semi-autonomous extra-judi­cial adjunct of the state itself.

Hamerquist’s text enables us to see that view­ing the Klan as a fas­cist orga­ni­za­tion ignores and obscures what makes it a unique­ly Amer­i­can bour­geois demo­c­ra­t­ic phe­nom­e­non. It helps us to rec­og­nize that fight­ing the Klan is not a fight against fas­cism, but a fight against U.S. democ­ra­cy as a par­tic­u­lar white suprema­cist con­struct, of which the KKK was and is an organ­ic expres­sion.

In its ori­gins and func­tion the clos­est anal­o­gy to the KKK is not the fas­cist mass orga­ni­za­tions of 20th cen­tu­ry Europe, but anoth­er 19th cen­tu­ry orga­ni­za­tion – the Black Hun­dreds – in Czarist Rus­sia, a social for­ma­tion which, like the South, con­tained large minor­i­ty pop­u­la­tions demand­ing their rights and a regime per­fect­ly will­ing to use extra-legal ter­ror to main­tain itself in pow­er.

Reagan and Reaganism

Many NCM groups, like oth­ers on the left, ini­tial­ly failed to grasp the extent to which Reagan’s 1980 elec­toral vic­to­ry marked a water­shed in U.S. pol­i­tics. The League of Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Strug­gle (LRS) declared that the election’s low vot­er turnout was an “even more sig­nif­i­cant indi­ca­tion of the nation­al mood and polit­i­cal realign­ment tak­ing place” than the Rea­gan vic­to­ry and pre­dict­ed, “Rea­gan is cer­tain to con­tin­ue along the same right­ward path which Carter com­menced while in office.”34 One LRS leader, Mae Ngai, while acknowl­edg­ing that per­haps there was more to the election’s out­come than that, still resist­ed see­ing it as a polit­i­cal turn­ing point, sug­gest­ing that Rea­gan had received a “con­ser­v­a­tive man­date”, but only from “big busi­ness” not from the Amer­i­can peo­ple.35 Many oth­er NCM groups shared a sim­i­lar per­spec­tive, empha­siz­ing the con­ti­nu­ities between Rea­gan­ism and pri­or admin­is­tra­tions and fail­ing to grasp the extent to which new hege­mon­ic align­ments were being cre­at­ed. For those groups that did rec­og­nize the advent of a new con­junc­ture, the prin­ci­pal chal­lenge was how to char­ac­ter­ize it and what strate­gic con­clu­sions to draw from this analy­sis.

Two rad­i­cal­ly dif­fer­ent approach­es soon came to the fore, each orig­i­nat­ing in a the­o­ret­i­cal jour­nal and the orga­ni­za­tion­al milieu clus­tered around it. The first was Line of March (LOM), a pub­li­ca­tion of the Rec­ti­fi­ca­tion move­ment, incor­po­rat­ing mem­bers of the for­mer Guardian Clubs, the Union of Demo­c­ra­t­ic Fil­ipinos, and the North­ern Cal­i­for­nia Alliance. LOM’s response to the elec­tion appeared in the March-April 1981 issue of the jour­nal in a major arti­cle from the edi­tors. Unlike the analy­ses of LRS, it had the mer­it of being clear that the coun­try was enter­ing a new peri­od: “… finance cap­i­tal has suc­ceed­ed in forg­ing a suf­fi­cient ide­o­log­i­cal con­sen­sus among the mass­es on behalf of a pro­gram of mil­i­tarism, racism and social ‘aus­ter­i­ty’ so that its polit­i­cal rep­re­sen­ta­tives are pre­pared to move with rel­a­tive impuni­ty toward its imple­men­ta­tion.”36

LOM viewed this new peri­od through the fas­cis­m/an­ti-fas­cism lens devel­oped by the Com­mu­nist Inter­na­tion­al in the 1930s, as the Com­men­ta­tor Col­lec­tive had done dur­ing the Water­gate affair. Assert­ing that the 1980 elec­tions had posed “the ques­tion of fas­cism before the work­ing class move­ment,” LOM charged that, with Reagan’s elec­tion, “the bourgeoisie’s inher­ent ten­den­cy toward fas­cism has moved clos­er to actu­al real­iza­tion.”37

This ten­den­cy was expressed, said LOM, through two rel­a­tive­ly inde­pen­dent but increas­ing­ly uni­fied process­es: the ten­den­cy toward fas­cism at the polit­i­cal cen­ter of the sys­tem in the state appa­ra­tus­es and the growth of fas­cism as a mass polit­i­cal and social move­ment, involv­ing groups like the KKK, the New Right, the Moral Major­i­ty, etc. LOM cau­tioned against the notion that the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment had become fas­cist, but came close to defin­ing the Rea­gan agen­da as a fas­cist one:

We must attempt to iden­ti­fy the con­crete polit­i­cal expres­sion of fas­cism in the U.S. today at its present stage of devel­op­ment. In our view, the essence of that process is to be found in the way in which the U.S. bour­geoisie has respond­ed to the deep­en­ing of the pro­found eco­nom­ic and polit­i­cal cri­sis grip­ping it. Inter­na­tion­al­ly, U.S. impe­ri­al­ism has adopt­ed a more aggres­sive and mil­i­taris­tic pos­ture in defense of its world-wide strate­gic inter­ests, a pos­ture which has sharply increased the like­li­hood of mil­i­tary inter­ven­tion and even full-scale war. Domes­ti­cal­ly, it has launched a mas­sive assault on the work­ing class, seek­ing to height­en cap­i­tal for­ma­tion and impose a pro­gram of social aus­ter­i­ty on the mass­es.38

Hav­ing derived its analy­sis from the line of the Comintern’s Sev­enth Con­gress, LOM’s pro­posed strate­gic response drew on the same source. Reject­ing the sug­ges­tion that the Unit­ed Front Against Fascism’s rel­e­vance was lim­it­ed to the spe­cif­ic con­di­tions of the 1930s, LOM insist­ed that “the Unit­ed Front Against Fas­cism is a uni­ver­sal­ly valid strate­gic con­cept for the work­ing class move­ment in all those coun­tries where the ques­tion of state pow­er has not yet ripened and where the bour­geoisie is mov­ing to sti­fle the work­ing class move­ment through the impo­si­tion of fas­cism.” More to the point: “We hold that the con­cept of a unit­ed front against fas­cism is a cor­rect one for the present stage of the class strug­gle in the U.S.39

Few groups in what was left of the NCM in 1981 embraced the LOM analy­sis. One of the most per­cep­tive crit­i­cisms was offered by the Philadel­phia Work­ers Orga­niz­ing Com­mit­tee (PWOC).40 PWOC didn’t ques­tion LOM’s adop­tion of the Comintern’s 1930s frame­work as its start­ing point, but it did iden­ti­fy two weak­ness­es in the journal’s analy­ses. First, LOM failed to demon­strate why the U.S. rul­ing class need­ed to resort to fas­cism. Sec­ond, LOM, while insist­ing on the need for a Unit­ed Front Against Fas­cism, refused to address any of the con­tro­ver­sies aris­ing from the pri­or appli­ca­tions of this strat­e­gy.

On the first point, PWOC saw an incon­sis­ten­cy in LOM’s argu­ment. LOM alleged that the inten­si­fi­ca­tion of the class strug­gle was com­pelling the rul­ing class to turn to fas­cism. But its own analy­sis acknowl­edged that “the work­ing class, owing to its polit­i­cal imma­tu­ri­ty, par­tic­u­lar­ly the strength of racism among its white mem­bers, is inca­pable of mount­ing an effec­tive resis­tance.” For PWOC, LOM had failed to make a com­pelling case:

…there is noth­ing in the present polit­i­cal sit­u­a­tion to sug­gest that reac­tion must resort to fas­cist dic­ta­tor­ship in order to real­ize its aims. The present frame­work of bour­geois democ­ra­cy con­tin­ues to be the most effec­tive means of monop­o­list rule and nei­ther the cir­cles around Rea­gan or the “grass roots” reac­tionar­ies of the New Right have giv­en any indi­ca­tion that they intend to dis­pense with it.41

On the sec­ond point, PWOC list­ed a few of the chal­leng­ing tac­ti­cal ques­tions that imple­men­ta­tion of a Unit­ed Front Against Fas­cism strat­e­gy would need to answer which the LOM arti­cle had ignored. Ques­tions like: “Is the dan­ger of fas­cism such that we must sub­or­di­nate all to the build­ing of the broad­est pos­si­ble anti-fas­cist front? Is the dan­ger of fas­cism such that our atti­tude toward the lib­er­al bour­geoisie needs to under­go a shift?” By refus­ing to acknowl­edge, let alone straight­for­ward­ly address these ques­tions, PWOC said, LOM’s advo­ca­cy of a Unit­ed Front Against Fas­cism was more akin to nos­tal­gic slo­ga­neer­ing than effec­tive strate­gic think­ing.

The sec­ond jour­nal to take up the ques­tion of Rea­gan and fas­cism was the The­o­ret­i­cal Review (TR), with edi­to­r­i­al boards in Tuc­son and Boston and a small net­work of sup­port­ing groups around the coun­try. The TR’s response to the LOM arti­cle shared a num­ber of ele­ments with the PWOC cri­tique. It, too, argued that LOM had failed to make the case that fas­cism was the deci­sive ques­tion con­fronting Amer­i­can work­ers and the left. And it too reject­ed the Unit­ed Front as the appro­pri­ate strate­gic response to Rea­gan­ism. But, PWOC had not prof­fered an alter­na­tive the­o­ret­i­cal frame­work to under­stand the Rea­gan “Rev­o­lu­tion.” The TR attempt­ed to do so, assert­ing, “it would not be an exag­ger­a­tion to say that the ulti­mate test of every rev­o­lu­tion­ary orga­ni­za­tion in this coun­try is going to be its abil­i­ty to find its bear­ings in the present cri­sis and chart a cor­rect course for the strug­gles ahead.”42

The TR agreed in broad out­line with LOM’s fac­tu­al pre­sen­ta­tion of the new con­junc­ture inau­gu­rat­ed by Reagan’s elec­tion. U.S. cap­i­tal­ism was under­go­ing a struc­tur­al cri­sis. There was an inten­si­fi­ca­tion of author­i­tar­i­an ten­den­cies with­in the cap­i­tal­ist state and its insti­tu­tions and prac­tices. There was a growth in the size and activ­i­ty of reac­tionary and white suprema­cist orga­ni­za­tions. The new admin­is­tra­tion was pur­su­ing an aggres­sive impe­ri­al­ist for­eign pol­i­cy and pro­ceed­ing to dis­man­tle the New Deal social order through impo­si­tion of a regime of increas­ing aus­ter­i­ty. For the TR, how­ev­er, none of these devel­op­ments nec­es­sar­i­ly implied fas­cism or a move­ment in the direc­tion of fas­cism.

The TR reject­ed LOM’s for­mu­la­tion of a invari­ant ten­den­cy toward fas­cism “ever present” in bour­geois democ­ra­cy.43 As PWOC had done, it reaf­firmed the long-estab­lished rev­o­lu­tion­ary posi­tion that bour­geois democ­ra­cy is the favored polit­i­cal sys­tem of devel­oped cap­i­tal­ism, and argued that this sys­tem had his­tor­i­cal­ly been aban­doned only under very spe­cif­ic cir­cum­stances involv­ing both an acute organ­ic cri­sis and the inabil­i­ty of exist­ing bour­geois demo­c­ra­t­ic insti­tu­tions to either pro­vide a solu­tion or gen­er­ate new forms capa­ble of doing so. Such spe­cif­ic cir­cum­stances, the TR argued, were not present in the U.S. in 1981.

Call­ing atten­tion to what it viewed as major the­o­ret­i­cal advances in the Marx­ist the­o­ry of pol­i­tics and the state since the 1960s, the TR sug­gest­ed that these held the key to under­stand­ing the new peri­od. In par­tic­u­lar, the TR argued that the writ­ings of the Greek Com­mu­nist Nicos Poulantzas on fas­cism and author­i­tar­i­an sta­tism pro­vid­ed a frame­work to think the polit­i­cal changes that were occur­ring in Eng­land under Thatch­er and in the U.S. under Rea­gan. The TR argued that author­i­tar­i­an sta­tism, not fas­cism, was the spe­cif­ic form cap­i­tal­ist pol­i­tics and the cap­i­tal­ist state were assum­ing in the advanced cap­i­tal­ist coun­tries. There was no need for a resort to fas­cism pre­cise­ly because author­i­tar­i­an sta­tism pro­vid­ed the pow­er bloc in these coun­tries with the polit­i­cal means to imple­ment a hege­mon­ic project for suc­cess­ful­ly nav­i­gat­ing a way out of the cri­sis with­in the frame­work of bour­geois democ­ra­cy.

LOM had sug­gest­ed the growth of fas­cism was pro­ceed­ing along two axes, one at the polit­i­cal cen­ter of the sys­tem in the state appa­ra­tus­es and the oth­er in the mass polit­i­cal and social move­ments. The TR argued that the the­o­ry of author­i­tar­i­an sta­tism as pre­sent­ed by Poulantzas had pre­dict­ed what was hap­pen­ing at both these lev­els, with­out recourse to the fas­cism con­cept. Author­i­tar­i­an sta­tism fore­told how the gov­ern­ment under Rea­gan would oper­ate:

It is char­ac­ter­ized by “inten­si­fied state con­trol over every sphere of socio-eco­nom­ic life,” an aus­ter­i­ty offen­sive against the work­ing class and oth­er pop­u­lar forces, a ten­den­cy to dis­man­tle many of the social and insti­tu­tion­al forms of the Key­ne­sian wel­fare sys­tem, “com­bined with a rad­i­cal decline of the insti­tu­tions of polit­i­cal democ­ra­cy,” and inten­si­fied con­cen­tra­tion of pow­er with­in the State’s exec­u­tive branch and the all-sided cur­tail­ment of civ­il lib­er­ties and rights.44

The TR also point­ed out how the the­o­ry of author­i­tar­i­an sta­tism pro­vid­ed a frame­work for under­stand­ing the increased activ­i­ty of the KKK and oth­er racist and right-wing groups, with Poulantzas not­ing that author­i­tar­i­an sta­tism involves the estab­lish­ment of an entire insti­tu­tion­al struc­ture run­ning par­al­lel to the offi­cial state which serves to pre­vent a rise in pop­u­lar strug­gles in ways the offi­cial state appa­ra­tus­es can­not.45

In place of LOM’s Unit­ed Front Against War and Fas­cism strat­e­gy, the TR coun­ter­posed one which it sug­gest­ed was con­sis­tent with an analy­sis of the new con­junc­ture as one of fun­da­men­tal cap­i­tal­ist restruc­tur­ing (what lat­er would come to be called neolib­er­al­ism). This involved three gen­er­al strate­gic tasks: “ (a) to orga­nize mass resis­tance to the cur­rent restruc­tur­ing process; (b) to wrest what­ev­er con­ces­sions are pos­si­ble out of this con­fronta­tion; and (c) to ulti­mate­ly force an alter­na­tive restruc­tur­ing pro­gram, one more favor­able to the inter­ests of the work­ing class and oppressed peo­ples.”46


Sce­nar­ios of “cri­sis” have an hon­ored place in the Marx­ist Tra­di­tion but think­ing them strate­gi­cal­ly, con­junc­tural­ly and polit­i­cal­ly, has not been a notable area of suc­cess. – Stu­art Hall47 

The pre­vi­ous sec­tions of this arti­cle dis­cussed three moments in the his­to­ry of the New Com­mu­nist Move­ment when issues of fas­cism loomed large. Today, fol­low­ing the elec­tion of Don­ald Trump, we are in a sim­i­lar moment. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, many left­ists are so busy react­ing to every­thing that Trump does or says, that they have lit­tle time to think the cur­rent moment the­o­ret­i­cal­ly.

The very term fas­cism, for instance, has returned to quo­tid­i­an usage across the entire spec­trum of the pro­gres­sive and lib­er­al left., The Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Com­mu­nist Par­ty, that stub­born holdover from the NCM, is cur­rent­ly engaged in a sym­bol­i­cal­ly suc­cess­ful (the signs and stick­ers have appeared at many recent demon­stra­tions) but polit­i­cal­ly unclear “Refuse Fas­cism!” cam­paign. The hyper­bol­ic slo­ga­neer­ing has tan­gi­ble res­o­nances with the pri­or moment of social­ist orga­niz­ing, as if we are caught in a time warp.

In a 1978 review of the U.S. left’s fre­quent use of the word “fas­cism,” STO’s Noel Ignatin once wrote that it wouldn’t be so bad if every­one under­stood that the epi­thet was not meant to be tak­en sci­en­tif­i­cal­ly but “sim­ply intend­ed to call forth a strong reac­tion from those hear­ing it.” The prob­lem, he not­ed, is that the left’s indis­crim­i­nate use of the term, appro­pri­ate only to an excep­tion­al form of pol­i­tics that aris­es in very spe­cif­ic cir­cum­stances, “can and does obscure the real­i­ty of mod­ern soci­ety and the forms of social motion which appear with­in it.”48

Marx­ist the­o­ry fights over words, Althuss­er tells us: “against lying words, against ambigu­ous words; for cor­rect words.”49 The his­to­ry of the debates in the NCM dis­cussed in this arti­cle was, in many cas­es, a his­to­ry of the fight over words, and the word “fas­cism” in par­tic­u­lar. The NCM was caught in a dilem­ma: the word fas­cism when deployed in the con­text of late 20th cen­tu­ry Amer­i­ca had enor­mous rhetor­i­cal pow­er but very lim­it­ed ana­lyt­i­cal pow­er. By over- and mis­us­ing it for rhetor­i­cal pur­pos­es, the move­ment end­ed up hand­i­cap­ping its abil­i­ty to cor­rect­ly ana­lyze real­i­ty and gen­er­ate effec­tive respon­sive strate­gies. This same overuse of the word fas­cism has re-emerged after the 2016 elec­tions and we must remain vig­i­lant to lim­it its rhetor­i­cal employ­ment and not con­fuse rhetoric with the­o­ret­i­cal analy­sis.

Nixon and Impeachment

Giv­en talk about a pos­si­ble impeach­ment of Don­ald Trump, there are def­i­nite lessons to be learned from the Richard Nixon impeach­ment expe­ri­ence and the NCM’s response to it. Most impor­tant­ly, these involve under­stand­ing why the impeach­ment process com­pelled Nixon’s res­ig­na­tion, but left the rest of the sys­tem vir­tu­al­ly unchanged. There were two main rea­sons for this out­come: first, the nature of the impeach­able offens­es which Nixon had com­mit­ted and, sec­ond, the nature of the impeach­ment process itself.

Marx­ist polit­i­cal the­o­ry tells us that the cap­i­tal­ist state func­tions as a crit­i­cal struc­ture enabling the pow­er bloc to con­struct and main­tain its uni­ty, achieve con­sen­sus on strat­e­gy and pol­i­cy, hege­mo­nize oth­er class­es and stra­ta, and ensure the repro­duc­tion of essen­tial con­di­tions of a cap­i­tal­ist social for­ma­tion. The offens­es that lead to Nixon’s impeached had noth­ing to do with his numer­ous crimes against the peo­ple – wag­ing a mur­der­ous impe­ri­al­ist war in Indochi­na, fos­ter­ing racism through his “South­ern Strat­e­gy,” or employ­ing a range of ille­gal meth­ods to tar­get the stu­dent, anti-war, and black lib­er­a­tion move­ments for dis­rup­tion and destruc­tion. He was impeached because he used his con­trol of appa­ra­tus­es of the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment includ­ing the office of the pres­i­den­cy to apply these same ille­gal meth­ods in strug­gles with oppos­ing ele­ments with­in the pow­er bloc itself.

To use Mao’s for­mu­la­tion in his famous 1957 essay, “On the Cor­rect Han­dling of Con­tra­dic­tions Among the Peo­ple,” Nixon made the mis­take of apply­ing meth­ods accept­able for han­dling antag­o­nis­tic con­tra­dic­tions between the peo­ple and their ene­mies to a non-antag­o­nis­tic con­tra­dic­tion among the peo­ple. Nixon was impeached to restore the sys­tem and reaf­firm the accept­ed legal norms through which the pow­er bloc his­tor­i­cal­ly achieved uni­ty and con­sen­sus. Hence the nar­row scope of the Water­gate inquiry and the neg­li­gi­ble impact of Nixon’s res­ig­na­tion beyond his replace­ment by Ger­ald Ford.

The impeach­ment process was played out in the Con­gres­sion­al are­na and its focus and the lim­its of its agen­da were set by Nixon’s Con­gres­sion­al crit­ics. As the WVO point­ed out, while there was mass sen­ti­ment favor­ing Nixon’s impeach­ment, this nev­er devel­oped into a mass move­ment. An inde­pen­dent pop­u­lar move­ment link­ing the demand for Nixon’s removal to a broad­er series of insti­tu­tion­al and pol­i­cy changes, which the NCM was try­ing to fos­ter, might have applied dif­fer­ent pres­sure on Con­gress, might have giv­en the impeach­ment process a more rad­i­cal dynam­ic. Its absence guar­an­teed that no such rad­i­cal­iza­tion occurred.

Ulti­mate­ly it may turn out that Don­ald Trump’s incom­pe­tent, errat­ic, and blun­der­ing pres­i­den­cy may prove to be so social­ly desta­bi­liz­ing and dis­rup­tive to the effec­tive oper­a­tions of the U.S. gov­ern­ment that influ­en­tial ele­ments in the pow­er bloc will move toward his impeach­ment. If they do so, it will be to restore the system’s equi­lib­ri­um, not because of the crimes and abus­es for which we oppose him. And the polit­i­cal terms and ide­o­log­i­cal lim­its of the impeach­ment cam­paign will be set accord­ing­ly. The deci­sive test for the left then will be what it was under Nixon: will we be skill­ful enough to build a strong, inde­pen­dent pop­u­lar move­ment start­ing from the impeach­ment issue and lever­ag­ing its momen­tum to turn a nar­row impeach­ment fight into a broad­er, more rad­i­cal chal­lenge to U.S. cap­i­tal­ism?

White Supremacy and the KKK

Through the racist, nation­al chau­vin­ist elec­toral cam­paign he waged and his poli­cies and state­ments since tak­ing office, Trump has put issues of racism square­ly on the polit­i­cal agen­da, great­ly embold­en­ing white suprema­cists in the process. His remarks after Char­lottesville only high­light the extent to which he and they are inter­twined. The surge in KKK, Nazi, and alt-right orga­niz­ing and activism and pop­u­lar oppo­si­tion to them presents seri­ous chal­lenges to the cur­rent left, as did sim­i­lar devel­op­ments to the NCM.

The 1979 Greens­boro mas­sacre shows what hap­pens when rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies attempt to take on the far right on their own, dis­re­gard­ing the knowl­edge of local com­mu­ni­ties and their own the­o­ry. The CWP act­ed as if it were con­fronting a small group of iso­lat­ed extrem­ists, instead of a force capa­ble of draw­ing on sig­nif­i­cant resources root­ed in long­stand­ing struc­tures of white pow­er and insti­tu­tion­al­ized racial vio­lence. Some con­tem­po­rary activists are com­mit­ting a sim­i­lar mis­take, endors­ing antifa direct action tac­tics with­out think­ing through their tac­ti­cal lim­i­ta­tions or suf­fi­cient­ly embed­ding them in a broad­er strate­gic plan and mass con­text.

Against the com­mon lib­er­al view that the KKK and the alt-right rep­re­sent a fas­cist threat to Amer­i­can democ­ra­cy, Marx­ists must start from the premise that racism and white suprema­cy are and have always been essen­tial com­po­nents of Amer­i­can democ­ra­cy. The fight against the far right is not a bat­tle to defend this racial­ized democ­ra­cy against fas­cism but an essen­tial com­po­nent of the bat­tle to dis­man­tle it. Far from being out­siders at war with soci­ety, the KKK, Nazis and the alt-right are an inte­gral part of the sys­tem of cap­i­tal­ist hege­mo­ny, per­form­ing func­tions crit­i­cal to the repro­duc­tion of that hege­mo­ny that can­not be under­tak­en by offi­cial, legal com­po­nents of the cap­i­tal­ist state itself.

In the present peri­od these orga­ni­za­tions and their role have become more impor­tant than ever. Here is how Jes­sop sum­ma­rizes Poulantzas’s char­ac­ter­i­za­tion of the ser­vices they per­form under an author­i­tar­i­an sta­tist regime:

Owing to the per­ma­nent insta­bil­i­ty of bour­geois hege­mo­ny in the lead­ing cap­i­tal­ist soci­eties and the gener­ic ele­ments of polit­i­cal and state cri­sis, cer­tain excep­tion­al fea­tures are close­ly artic­u­lat­ed with the dom­i­nant nor­mal fea­tures of this new state form. In par­tic­u­lar there emerges a reserve repres­sive para-state appa­ra­tus, par­al­lel to the main organs of the state and serv­ing in a pre-emp­tive capac­i­ty to police pop­u­lar strug­gles and oth­er threats to bour­geois hege­mo­ny.50

Giv­en Trump’s grow­ing unpop­u­lar­i­ty and the broad­en­ing and deep­en­ing of the anti-Trump oppo­si­tion move­ment, is it any won­der that para-state groups from the alt-right, the KKK and Nazis have become increas­ing­ly active or that Trump has giv­en them unprece­dent­ed legit­i­ma­cy? It’s just anoth­er piece of a cross-the-board strength­en­ing of com­po­nents of the state repres­sive appa­ra­tus­es, from the Jus­tice Department’s aban­don­ment of super­vi­sion of racist police depart­ments, to the renewed fur­nish­ing of mil­i­tary hard­ware to local law enforce­ment, to the par­don of Sher­iff Arpaio, to Trump’s thin­ly veiled endorse­ment of police bru­tal­i­ty. The cen­tral role of the alt-right today in “polic­ing pop­u­lar strug­gles and oth­er threats to bour­geois hege­mo­ny” on behalf of the cap­i­tal­ist state could not be clear­er. Nor can the nec­es­sary strate­gic con­clu­sions we draw from these facts.

His­tor­i­cal­ly of course, the Marx­ist left has always sup­port­ed mil­i­tant self-defense tac­tics against fas­cists and white suprema­cists and the right of the Afro-Amer­i­can com­mu­ni­ty to defend itself against racist ter­ror. But these tac­tics were viewed in the con­text of a broad­er strat­e­gy of mass mobi­liza­tion and judi­cious­ly employed in con­junc­tion with oth­er, polit­i­cal, ide­o­log­i­cal and legal tac­tics. There is a qual­i­ta­tive dif­fer­ence between what hap­pened in Greens­boro and, for exam­ple, the bat­tle of Cable Street.51 Antifa direct action tac­tics deployed en masse by London’s East End in 1936 (under Com­mu­nist lead­er­ship) defeat­ed both Oswald Moseley’s fas­cists and the British police sent to pro­tect them. Great care must be tak­en to eval­u­ate when and to what extent these same tac­tics can be suc­cess­ful­ly deployed by small­er left­ist groups.

Making Sense of the Trump Phenomenon

The debate in the NCM over the mean­ing of Reagan’s elec­toral vic­to­ry and the birth of neolib­er­al­ism was in some ways a dress rehearsal for cur­rent debates about Trump and Trump­ism. Then as now, the imme­di­ate reflex of many was to look back, to revive the all-too-famil­iar fas­cis­m/an­ti-fas­cism par­a­digm and try to make it work again. This reflex is an enor­mous­ly pow­er­ful one. As Stu­art Hall remarked, the appear­ance of orga­nized fas­cism on the polit­i­cal stage “seems to solve every­thing for the left.” No need for “time-wast­ing the­o­ret­i­cal spec­u­la­tions!” Let’s just take to the streets.52

Not every­one in the NCM suc­cumbed to this reflex. This wasn’t the first sig­nif­i­cant push-back in the NCM’s his­to­ry against the auto­mat­ic revival of clas­si­cal Com­intern the­o­ries and strate­gies to address con­tem­po­rary prob­lems. But LOM’s efforts to revive the Unit­ed Front Against Fas­cism line as a response to Rea­gan­ism chal­lenged the rem­nants of the NCM who dis­agreed to find a bet­ter alter­na­tive.

Thatch­erism in Eng­land and Rea­gan­ism in this coun­try con­front­ed the left with a new con­junc­ture, new forms of pol­i­tics, and a new form of the bour­geois demo­c­ra­t­ic cap­i­tal­ist state. Inter­na­tion­al­ly, some Marx­ists were alert to the rad­i­cal new­ness of what they were see­ing, and refused to ignore or dis­tort these devel­op­ments to make them com­pat­i­ble with out­dat­ed schemas. Among the most impor­tant of these were Poulantzas with his the­o­ry of author­i­tar­i­an sta­tism and Hall with his relat­ed but dis­tinct con­cep­tu­al­iza­tion of author­i­tar­i­an pop­ulism. Their writ­ings pro­vid­ed a dis­tinc­tive the­o­ret­i­cal per­spec­tive to think Thatch­erism and Rea­gan­ism “strate­gi­cal­ly, con­junc­tural­ly and polit­i­cal­ly.”

The NCM is now a part of his­to­ry. But in cer­tain impor­tant respects the chal­lenges we face today are not so dif­fer­ent from the ones it faced. Author­i­tar­i­an sta­tism and author­i­tar­i­an pop­ulism are still with us. We have yet to ful­ly make sense of Trump’s elec­toral vic­to­ry; we are still try­ing to come to terms with the Trump regime, to find con­cepts ade­quate not just to describe it but to the­o­rize it.

The Trump phe­nom­e­non is forc­ing us to con­front head-on the real­ly big ques­tions – the ques­tions whose solu­tion are crit­i­cal to the future of the left as a viable polit­i­cal project. Per­haps above all, we face the one dimen­sion that Stu­art Hall argues, “has defeat­ed the left, polit­i­cal­ly, and Marx­ist analy­sis, the­o­ret­i­cal­ly, in every advanced cap­i­tal­ist democ­ra­cy since the First World War”:

…the ways in which pop­u­lar con­sent can be so con­struct­ed, by a his­tor­i­cal bloc seek­ing hege­mo­ny, as to har­ness to its sup­port some pop­u­lar dis­con­tents, neu­tral­ize the oppos­ing forces, dis­aggregate the oppo­si­tion and real­ly incor­po­rate some strate­gic ele­ments of pop­u­lar opin­ion into its own hege­mon­ic project.53

This pas­sage delin­eates pre­cise­ly what the Trump cam­paign was able to accom­plish, 30 years before the fact. It’s remark­able how well Hall’s line of inquiry describes the his­to­ry of the 2016 elec­tion, how it calls atten­tion to the spe­cif­ic ways that Trump achieved his vic­to­ry – craft­ing an enor­mous­ly pow­er­ful ide­o­log­i­cal mes­sage through the har­ness­ing of diverse threads of pop­u­lar dis­con­tent, includ­ing ele­ments of white rage, eco­nom­ic resent­ment, and exclu­sion­ary nation­al­ism. And couldn’t we extend this analy­sis to the Bernie Sanders can­di­da­cy and chart the extent to which his cam­paign con­tained the seeds of a very dif­fer­ent hege­mon­ic project, involv­ing some of the same dis­con­tents but also oth­er ide­o­log­i­cal ele­ments, artic­u­lat­ed in a very dif­fer­ent but sim­i­lar­ly potent con­struc­tion of a new pop­u­lar con­sent?

The lessons of the present moment for the future of the left are there to be learned, if we are will­ing to, like Gram­sci, “attend ‘vio­lent­ly’ to things as they are, with­out illu­sions or false hopes” and com­mit our­selves to con­struct­ing an alter­na­tive future wor­thy of true rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies.54

  1. For a com­pre­hen­sive his­to­ry, see Max Elbaum, Rev­o­lu­tion in the Air: ‘60s Rad­i­cals Turn to Lenin, Mao, and Che (New York: Ver­so, 2002). 

  2. Nicos Poulantzas, Fas­cism and Dic­ta­tor­ship, trans. Judith White (Lon­don: NLB, 1974), 358. 

  3. An exten­sive col­lec­tion of online NCM mate­ri­als can be found at the Ency­clo­pe­dia of Anti-Revi­sion­ism Online

  4. Ernesto Laclau, Pol­i­tics and Ide­ol­o­gy in Marx­ist The­o­ry (Lon­don: Ver­so, 1977), 81. 

  5. Geor­gi Dim­itrov, “ Fas­cist Offen­sive and the Tasks of the Com­mu­nist Inter­na­tion­al in the Strug­gle of the Work­ing Class against Fas­cism,” 1935. 

  6. R. Palme Dutt, Fas­cism and Social Rev­o­lu­tion (New York: Inter­na­tion­al Pub­lish­ers, 1935). 

  7. See Noel Ignatin [Ignatiev], “Fas­cism: Some Com­mon Mis­con­cep­tions,” Urgent Tasks 4 (Sum­mer 1978). 

  8. For a sam­pling: Laclau, Pol­i­tics and Ide­ol­o­gy in Marx­ist The­o­ry, Poulantzas, Fas­cism and Dic­ta­tor­ship, as well as his Polit­i­cal Pow­er and Social Class­es, trans. Ben Brew­ster (Lon­don: NLB, 1973) and State, Pow­er, Social­ism, trans. Patrick Camiller (Lon­don: NLB, 1978); Stu­art Hall, The Hard Road to Renew­al (Lon­don: Ver­so, 1988); Bob Jes­sop, The Cap­i­tal­ist State (New York: New York Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 1982). 

  9. Bob Jes­sop, Kevin Bon­nett, Simon Brom­ley, and Tom Ling, Thatch­erism: A Tale of Two Nations (Oxford: Poli­ty Press, 1988), 28. 

  10. Jon Har­ris, “Crit­i­cisms of the ‘Water­gate’ Line,” PLP Con­ven­tion Bul­letin, no. 10, 1973. 

  11. Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Stu­dent Brigade/Revolutionary Union, “The Bums Are On the Run – Kick ’Em While They’re Down!,” spe­cial sup­ple­ment to Fight Back! 2, no. 1 (Sep­tem­ber 15, 1974). 

  12. Work­ers View­point Orga­ni­za­tion, “Unit­ed Front against Monop­oly Cap­i­tal­ism or Unit­ed Front against Fas­cism – Water­gate and Fas­cism…,” Work­ers View­point Jour­nal 1, no. 2 (Sep­tem­ber 1974). 

  13. See the report on Dave Davis’s remarks at the 1974 Guardian forum on “Water­gate and Fas­cism”: “Hun­dreds attend forum on Water­gate,” The Guardian, May 29, 1974. See Davis’s clar­i­fi­ca­to­ry let­ter, “Bad Car­i­ca­ture,” in the same issue. 

  14. Octo­ber League, “Water­gate and the Fas­cist Threat,” The Call 1, no. 10 (July 1973). 

  15. Com­mu­nist Col­lec­tive of the Chi­cano Nation, “Water­gate,” El Amanecer Rojo, no. 4 (August 1973). 

  16. The Com­mu­nist League, “Both Sides of the Fas­cist Coin! Nixon And His Phoney Crit­ics,” People’s Tri­bune 6, no. 4 (April 1974). 

  17. See, for instance, Jack Shul­man of the Com­men­ta­tor Collective’s “Publisher’s Pref­ace” to a reprint of Dimitrov’s The Unit­ed Front Against War and Fas­cism (New York: Gam­ma Pub­lish­ing, 1974). 

  18. Work­ers View­point Orga­ni­za­tion, “Unit­ed Front Against Monop­oly Cap­i­tal­ism or Unit­ed Front against Fas­cism.” 

  19. Work­ers View­point Orga­ni­za­tion, “Nixon and Ford: Whence the Dif­fer­ences?,” Work­ers View­point 1, no. 2, (Sep­tem­ber 1974): 39–44, empha­sis in orig­i­nal. 

  20. Ibid. 

  21. See Shul­man, “Publisher’s Pref­ace.” 

  22. Octo­ber League, “Con­gress Par­a­lyzed – Dump Nixon,” The Call, April 1974. 

  23. Quot­ed in Work­ers View­point Orga­ni­za­tion, “Nixon and Ford: Whence the Dif­fer­ences?,” 43. 

  24. Work­ers View­point Orga­ni­za­tion, “Unit­ed Front Against Monop­oly Cap­i­tal­ism or Unit­ed Front against Fas­cism.” 

  25. Work­ers View­point Orga­ni­za­tion, “Nixon and Ford: Whence the Dif­fer­ences?” 

  26. Ken Lawrence, “The Ku Klux Klan and Fas­cism,” Urgent Tasks 14 (1982). 

  27. Nel­son John­son (mem­ber of WVO/CWP), “Open Let­ter to Joe Grady, Gordell Pierce, and All KKK Mem­bers and Sym­pa­thiz­ers,” Octo­ber 22, 1979. 

  28. Quot­ed in Amil­car Cabral/Paul Robe­son Col­lec­tive, “The Greens­boro Mas­sacre: Crit­i­cal Lessons for the 1980’s.” 

  29. Signe Waller, Love and Rev­o­lu­tion (Lon­don: Row­man and Lit­tle­field, 2002), 211. 

  30. Waller, Love and Rev­o­lu­tion, 212, 214. 

  31. Amil­car Cabral/Paul Robe­son Col­lec­tive, “The Greens­boro Mas­sacre: Crit­i­cal Lessons for the 1980’s. 

  32. See Front­line’s com­ments in “Exchange on the CWP and Greens­boro,” Front­line, Vol. 1, No. 18 (March 19, 1984). 

  33. Don Hamerquist, Fas­cism in the U.S.?, dis­cus­sion paper, 1976. 

  34. League of Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Strug­gle, “Why the Rea­gan ‘Vic­to­ry?,’” Uni­ty 3, no. 21 (Novem­ber 7-21, 1980). 

  35. Mae Ngai, “The ‘Con­ser­v­a­tive Man­date’: From the peo­ple, or from big busi­ness?,” Uni­ty 3, no. 22 (Novem­ber 21-Decem­ber 4, 1980). 

  36. For more on this line, see Poulantzas, Fas­cism and Dic­ta­tor­ship. 

  37. Line of March Edi­to­r­i­al Board, “A Com­mu­nist Pro­pos­al for a Unit­ed Front Against War and Racism,” Line of March, Vol. 1, No. 5 (March-April 1981). 

  38. Ibid. 

  39. Ibid., empha­sis added. 

  40. Ron White­horne, “Line of March’s Strat­e­gy for Resistance…A Crit­i­cal Response,” The Orga­niz­er, Vol. 7, No. 8 (August 1981). 

  41. Ibid. 

  42. Paul Costel­lo, “Toward a Con­tem­po­rary Strat­e­gy: Lessons of the 1930s,” The­o­ret­i­cal Review No. 21 (March-April 1981). 

  43. On this ever-present ten­den­cy, see Line of March Edi­to­r­i­al Board, “A Com­mu­nist Pro­pos­al for a Unit­ed Front Against War and Racism.” 

  44. Paul Costel­lo, “Cap­i­tal­ism, the State, Crises,” The­o­ret­i­cal Review No. 20 (Jan­u­ary-Feb­ru­ary 1981). 

  45. Ibid. 

  46. Ibid. 

  47. Hall, Hard Road To Renew­al, 127. 

  48. Ignatin, “Fas­cism: Some Com­mon Mis­con­cep­tions.” 

  49. Louis Althuss­er, “Phi­los­o­phy as a Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Weapon,” in Lenin and Phi­los­o­phy and Oth­er Essays, trans. Ben Brew­ster (New York: Month­ly Review Press, 1971), 22. 

  50. Jes­sop, The Cap­i­tal­ist State, 170, empha­sis added. 

  51. On the bat­tle of Cable Street, see Joe Jacobs, Out of the Ghet­to (Lon­don: Simon, 1978). 

  52. Hall, Hard Road to Renew­al, 42. 

  53. Ibid., 152. 

  54. Quot­ed in Hard Road to Renew­al, 14. 

Author of the article

is a long-time communist activist living in Tucson, Arizona who edited the Theoretical Review journal (1977-1983) under the name Paul Costello. He is the founder and editor of the Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism Online.