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
For a comprehensive history, see Max Elbaum, Revolution in the Air: ‘60s Radicals Turn to Lenin, Mao, and Che (New York: Verso, 2002). ↩
Nicos Poulantzas, Fascism and Dictatorship, trans. Judith White (London: NLB, 1974), 358. ↩
Ernesto Laclau, Politics and Ideology in Marxist Theory (London: Verso, 1977), 81. ↩
R. Palme Dutt, Fascism and Social Revolution (New York: International Publishers, 1935). ↩
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). ↩
Bob Jessop, Kevin Bonnett, Simon Bromley, and Tom Ling, Thatcherism: A Tale of Two Nations (Oxford: Polity Press, 1988), 28. ↩
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). ↩
Workers Viewpoint Organization, “United Front against Monopoly Capitalism or United Front against Fascism – Watergate and Fascism…,” Workers Viewpoint Journal 1, no. 2 (September 1974). ↩
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. ↩
The Communist League, “Both Sides of the Fascist Coin! Nixon And His Phoney Critics,” People’s Tribune 6, no. 4 (April 1974). ↩
Workers Viewpoint Organization, “United Front Against Monopoly Capitalism or United Front against Fascism.” ↩
See Shulman, “Publisher’s Preface.” ↩
Workers Viewpoint Organization, “United Front Against Monopoly Capitalism or United Front against Fascism.” ↩
Nelson Johnson (member of WVO/CWP), “Open Letter to Joe Grady, Gordell Pierce, and All KKK Members and Sympathizers,” October 22, 1979. ↩
Quoted in Amilcar Cabral/Paul Robeson Collective, “The Greensboro Massacre: Critical Lessons for the 1980’s.” ↩
Signe Waller, Love and Revolution (London: Rowman and Littlefield, 2002), 211. ↩
Waller, Love and Revolution, 212, 214. ↩
Amilcar Cabral/Paul Robeson Collective, “The Greensboro Massacre: Critical Lessons for the 1980’s. ↩
Mae Ngai, “The ‘Conservative Mandate’: From the people, or from big business?,” Unity 3, no. 22 (November 21-December 4, 1980). ↩
For more on this line, see Poulantzas, Fascism and Dictatorship. ↩
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). ↩
Ibid., emphasis added. ↩
Ron Whitehorne, “Line of March’s Strategy for Resistance…A Critical Response,” The Organizer, Vol. 7, No. 8 (August 1981). ↩
Paul Costello, “Toward a Contemporary Strategy: Lessons of the 1930s,” Theoretical Review No. 21 (March-April 1981). ↩
On this ever-present tendency, see Line of March Editorial Board, “A Communist Proposal for a United Front Against War and Racism.” ↩
Hall, Hard Road To Renewal, 127. ↩
Jessop, The Capitalist State, 170, emphasis added. ↩
Hall, Hard Road to Renewal, 42. ↩
Ibid., 152. ↩
Quoted in Hard Road to Renewal, 14. ↩