Is Donald Trump a fascist?
by Louis Proyect
Nearly 20 years ago the Marxism list was discussing the candidacy of Pat Buchanan, who was viewed with the same kind of alarm that greets Donald Trump today and greeted George Wallace in 1968. As someone trained in the Trotskyist movement and who learned to be skeptical of leftist claims that these men or even someone as centrist as Richard Nixon could be a “fascist”, I tend to agree with fellow ex-SWP member Charles Post, who while being quite wet on the Brenner thesis, wrote with some clarity for Jacobin on this matter:
This radicalization of the middle classes — what Trotsky once referred to as “human dust” — bears some resemblance to the classic fascist movements of the 1920s and 1930s. Genuine fascist elements (white supremacist groups with organized street fighting groups) have been attracted to the Tea Party and Trump.
However, neither the Tea Party nor Trump can be described as fascists. Both seek to win power through electoral politics, not abolish elections and representative government. Nor will capitalists in the US, in the foreseeable future, opt for such a far-right option. If the Republican establishment can’t stop Trump, they’ll likely cross partisan lines and support a neoliberal politician like Hillary Clinton.
The specter of Trump not only frightens the Republican establishment, but most of the US left. As it has time and time again since the 1930s, the threat of the far right will serve as an excuse for union officialdom and the liberal civil rights, feminist, and LGBTQ establishment to mobilize for Democrats.
But this solution to the rise of Trump and the far right is no solution at all: embracing “lesser evilism” in 2016 would mean yet again forgoing the work of rebuilding the labor and social movements and instead subordinating our radical politics to the Democratic Party. The disastrous result would be that the only visible opposition to the capitalist class would come not from the Left, but from a billionaire businessman.
After the discussion on Buchanan erupted on the Marxism list, I began writing a series of posts trying to analyze fascism historically in order to come to terms with his candidacy. My take was very close to Post’s and not surprisingly the analysis below that is extracted from my articles can apply equally to Trump. Just substitute “Donald Trump” for “Pat Buchanan” in the excerpt below and the analysis will ring true.
Bonapartism, populism and fascism overlap to a striking degree. We see elements of fascism, populism and Bonapartism in the politics of Pat Buchanan. Buchanan rails against African-Americans and immigrants, both documented and undocumented. He also rails against Wall St. which is “selling out” the working man. Is he a fascist, however? Ross Perot employs a number of the same themes. Is he?
The problem in trying to answer these questions solely on the basis of someone’s speeches or writings is that it ignores historical and class dynamics. Bonaparte and Hitler emerged as a response to powerful proletrian revolutionary attacks on capital. What are the objective conditions in American society today? Hitler based their power on large-scale social movements that could put tens of thousands of people into the streets at a moment’s notice. These movements were not creatures of capitalist cabals. They had their own logic and their own warped integrity. Many were drawn to Hitler in the deluded hope that he would bring some kind of “all-German” socialism into existence. These followers were not Marxists, but they certainly hated the capitalist class. Are the people who attend Buchanan, Perot and Farrakhan rallies also in such a frenzied, revolutionary state of mind?
At what point are we in American society today?
I would argue that rather than being in a prerevolutionary situation, that rather we are in a period which has typified capitalism for the better part of a hundred and fifty years.We are in a period of capitalist “normalcy”. Capitalism is a system which is prone to economic crisis and war. The unemployment and “downsizing” going on today are typical of capitalism in its normal functioning. We have to stop thinking as if the period of prosperity following WWII as normal. It is not. It is an anomaly in the history of capitalism. When industrial workers found themselves in a position to buy houses, send children through college, etc., this was only because of a number of exceptional circumstances which will almost certainly never arise again.
We are in a period more like the late 1800’s or the early 1900’s. It is a period of both expansion and retrenchment. It is a period of terrible reaction which can give birth to the Ku Klux Klan and the skinheads and other neo-Nazis. It is also a period which can give birth to something like Eugene V. Debs socialist party.
The United States in the 1930s became a battleground between industrial workers and the capitalist class over whether workers would be able to form industrial unions. There had been craft unions for decades, but only industrial unions could fight for all of the workers in a given plant or industry. This fight had powerful revolutionary implications since the captains of heavy industry required a poorly paid, docile work-force in order to maximize profits in the shattered capitalist economy. There were demonstrations, sit-down strikes and even gun-fights led by the Communist Party and other left groups to establish this basic democratic right.
Within this political context, fascist groups began to emerge. They drew their inspiration from Mussolini’s fascists or Hitler’s brown- shirts. In a time of severe social crisis, groups of petty-bourgeois and lumpen elements begin to coalesce around demagogic leaders. They employ “radical” sounding rhetoric but in practice seek out working- class organizations to intimidate and destroy. One such fascist group was the Silver Shirts of Minneapolis, Minnesota.
In chapter eleven of “Teamster Politics”, SWP leader Farrell Dobbs recounts “How the Silver Shirts Lost Their Shrine in Minneapolis”. It is the story of how Local 544 of the Teamsters union, led by Trotskyists, defended itself successfully from a fascist expedition into the city. Elements of the Twin Cities ruling-class, alarmed over the growth of industrial unionism in the city, called in Silver Shirt organizer Roy Zachary. Zachary hosted two closed door meetings on July 29 and August 2 of 1938. Teamster “moles” discovered that Zachary intended to launch a vigilante attack against Local 544 headquarters. They also discovered that Zachary planned to work with one F.L. Taylor to set up an “Associated Council of Independent Unions”, a union-busting operation. Taylor had ties to a vigilante outfit called the “Minnesota Minute Men”.
Local 544 took serious measures to defend itself. It formed a union defense guard in August 1938 open to any active union member. Many of the people who joined had military experience, including Ray Rainbolt the elected commander of the guard. Rank-and-filers were former sharpshooters, machine gunners and tank operators in the US Army. The guard also included one former German officer with WWI experience. While the guard itself did not purchase arms except for target practice, nearly every member had hunting rifles at home that they could use in the circumstance of a Silver Shirt attack.
Events reached a climax when Pelley came to speak at a rally in the wealthy section of Minneapolis.
Ray Rainbolt organized a large contingent of defense guard members to pay a visit to Calhoun Hall where Pelley was to make his appearance. The powerful sight of disciplined but determined unionists persuaded the audience to go home and Pelley to cancel his speech.
This was the type of conflict taking place in 1938. A capitalist class bent on taming workers; fascist groups with a documented violent, anti-labor record; industrial workers in motion: these were the primary actors in that period. It was characteristic of the type of class conflict that characterized the entire 1930s. It is useful to keep this in mind when we speak about McCarthyism.
WWII abolished a number of major contradictions in global capital while introducing others. The United States emerged as the world’s leading capitalist power and took control economically and politically of many of the former colonies of the exhausted European powers. Inter-imperialist rivalries and contradictions seemed to be a thing of the past. England was the U.S.’s junior partner. The defeated Axis powers, Germany and Japan, were under Washington’s thumb. France retained some independence. (To this day France continues to act as if it were an equal partner of the US, detonating nuclear weapons in the Pacific or talking back to NATO over policies in Bosnia.)
Meanwhile the USSR survived the war bloodied but unbowed. In a series of negotiations with the US and its allies, Stalin won the right to create “buffer” states to his West. A whole number of socialist countries then came into being. China and Yugoslavia had deep-going proletarian revolutions that, joined with the buffer states, would soon account for more than 1/4 of the world’s population.
World imperialism took an aggressive stance toward the socialist bloc before the smoke had cleared from the WWII battlegrounds. Churchill made his “cold war” speech and contradictions between the socialist states and world capitalism grew very sharp. Imperialism began using the same type of rhetoric and propaganda against the USSR that it had used against the Nazis. Newreels of the early fifties would depict a spreading red blot across the European continent. This time the symbol superimposed on the blot was a hammer-and-sickle instead of a swastika. The idea was the same: to line up the American people against the enemy overseas that was trying to gobble up the “free world”.
A witch-hunt in the United States, sometimes called McCarthyism, emerged in the United States from nearly the very moment the cold war started. The witch-hunt would serve to eradicate domestic opposition to the anti-Communist crusade overseas. The witch-hunters wanted to root up and eradicate all sympathy to the USSR. President Harry Truman, a Democrat and New Dealer, started the anticommunist crusade. He introduced the first witch-hunt legislation, a bill that prevented federal employees from belonging to “subversive” organizations. When Republican Dwight Eisenhower took office, he simply kept the witch-hunt going. The McCarthy movement per se emerges out of a reactionary climate created by successive White House administrations, Democrat and Republican alike.
I will argue that a similar dynamic has existed in US politics over the past twenty years. Instead of having a “cold war” against the socialist countries, we have had a “cold war” on the working-class and its allies. James Carter, a Democrat, set into motion the attack on working people and minorities, while successive Republican and Democratic administrations have continued to stoke the fire. Reaganism is Carterism raised to a higher level. All Buchanan represents is the emergence of a particularly reactionary tendency within this overall tendency toward the right.
Attacks on the working-class and minorities have nothing to do with “bad faith” on the part of people like William Clinton. We are dealing with a global restructuring of capital that will be as deep-going in its impact on class relations internationally as the cold war was in its time. The cold war facilitated the removal of the Soviet Union as a rival. Analogously, the class war on working people in the advanced capitalist countries that began in the Carter years facilitates capital’s next new expansion. Capitalism is a dynamic system. This dynamism includes not only war and “downsizing”, it also includes fabulous growth in places like the East Coast of China. To not see this is to not understand capitalism.
“The United States, the most powerful capitalist country in history, is a component part of the world capitalist system and is subject to the same general laws. It suffers from the same incurable diseases and is destined to share the same fate. The overwhelming preponderance of American imperialism does not exempt it from the decay of world capitalism, but, on the contrary, acts to involve it even more deeply, inextricably and hopelessly. US capitalism can no more escape from the revolutionary consequences of world capitalist decay than the older European capitalist powers. The blind alley in which world capitalism has arrived, and the US with it, excludes a new organic era of capitalist stabilization. The dominant world position of American imperialism now accentuates and aggravates the death agony of capitalism as a whole.”
This appears in an article in the April 5, 1954 Militant titled “First Principles in the Struggle Against Fascism”. It is of course based on a totally inaccurate misunderstanding of the state of global capital. Capitalism was not in a “blind alley” in 1954. The truth is that from approximately 1946 on capitalism went through the most sustained expansion in its entire history. To have spoken about the “death agony” of capitalism in 1954 was utter nonsense. This “catastrophism” could only serve to misorient the left since it did not put McCarthyism in proper context.
One of the great contributions made by Nicos Poulantzas in his “Fascism and the Third International” was his diagnosis of the problem of “catastrophism”. According to Poulantzas, the belief that capitalism has reached a “blind alley” first appeared in the Comintern of the early 1920’s. He blames this on a dogmatic approach to Lenin’s “Imperialism, The Highest Stage of Capitalism” that existed in a communist movement that was all too eager to deify the dead revolutionist.
Lenin’s theory of imperialism owed much to Hilferding and Bukharin who believed that capitalism was moribund and incapable of generating new technical and industrial growth. Moreover, this capitalist system was in a perpetual crisis and wars were inevitable. The Comintern latched onto this interpretation and adapted it to the phenomenon of fascism. Fascism, in addition to war, was also a permanent feature of the decaying capitalist system. A system that had reached such an impasse was a system that was in a permanent catastrophic mode. The Comintern said that it was five minutes to midnight.
The SWP’s version of catastrophism did not allow it to see McCarthy’s true mission. This mission was not to destroy the unions and turn the United States into a totalitarian state. It was rather a mission to eliminate radical dissent against the stepped-up attack on the USSR, its allies and revolutionary movements in the third world. The witch- hunt targeted radicals in the unions, the schools, the State Department, the media and elsewhere. After the witch-hunt had eradicated all traces of radical opinion, the US military could fight its imperialist wars without interference from the left. This is exactly what took place during the Korean War. There were no visible signs of dissent except in the socialist press and in some liberal publications like I.F. Stone’s Newsletter. This clamp-down on dissent lasted until the Vietnam war when a newly developing radicalization turned the witch-hunt back for good.
In the view of the SWP, nothing basically had changed since the 1930’s. The target of McCarthyite “fascism” was the working-class and its unions. The Militant stated on January 18, 1954:
“If the workers’ organizations don’t have the answer, the fascists will utilize the rising discontent of the middle class, its disgust with the blundering labor leadership, and its frenzy at being ruined economically, to build a mass fascist movement with armed detachments and hurl them at the unions. While spouting a lot of radical-sounding demagogy they will deflect the anti-capitalist wrath of the middle class and deploy it against labor, and establish the iron- heel dictatorship of Big Capital on the smoking ruins of union halls.”
One wonders if the party leadership in 1954 actually knew any middle- class people, since party life consisted of a “faux proletarian” subculture with tenuous ties to American society. Certainly they could have found out about the middle-class on the newly emerging TV situation comedies like “Father Knows Best” or “Leave it to Beaver”. Rather than expressing “rising discontent” or “frenzy”, the middle- class was taking advantage of dramatic increases in personal wealth. Rather than plotting attacks on union halls like the Silver Shirts did in 1938, they were moving to suburbia, buying televisions and station wagons, and taking vacations in Miami Beach or Europe. This was not only objectively possible for the average middle-class family, it was also becoming possible for the worker in basic industry. For the very same reason the working-class was not gravitating toward socialism, the middle-class was not gravitating toward fascism. This reason, of course, is that prosperity had become general.
The other day Ryan Daum posted news of the death of Pablo, a leader of the Trotskyist movement in the 1950s. European Trotskyism is generally much less dogmatic than its American and English cousins. While the party leadership in the United States hated Pablo with a passion, rank and filers often found themselves being persuaded by some ideas put forward by the Europeans.
One of these differences revolved around how to assess McCarthy. The party leadership viewed McCarthy as a fascist while a minority grouping led by Dennis Vern and Samuel Ryan based in Los Angeles challenged this view. Unfortunately I was not able to locate articles in which the minority defends its view. What I will try to do is reconstruct this view through remarks directed against them by Joseph Hansen, a party leader. This is a risky method, but the only one available to me.
Vern and Ryan criticize the Militant’s narrow focus on the McCarthyite threat. They say, “The net effect of this campaign is not to hurt McCarthy, or the bourgeois state, but to excuse the bourgeois state for the indisputable evidences of its bourgeois character, and thus hinder the proletariat in its understanding that the bourgeois- democratic state is an ‘executive committee’ of the capitalist class, and that only a workers state can offer an appropriate objective for the class struggle.”
I tend to discount statements like “only a workers state” since they function more as a mantra than anything else (“only socialism can end racism”; “only socialism can end sexism”– you get the picture.) However, there is something interesting being said here. By singling out McCarthy, didn’t the SWP “personalize” the problems the left was facing? A Democratic president initiated the witch-hunt, not a fascist minded politician. Both capitalist parties created the reactionary movement out of which McCarthy emerges. By the same token, doesn’t the narrow focus on Buchanan today tend to lift some of the pressure on William Clinton. After all, if our problem is Buchanan, then perhaps it makes sense to throw all of our weight behind Clinton.
Vern and Ryan also offer the interesting observation that McCarthy has been less anti-union than many bourgeois politicians to his left. The liberal politicians railed against McCarthy’s assault on civil liberties, but meanwhile endorsed all sorts of measures that would have weakened the power of the American trade union movement.
This was an interesting perception that has some implications I will attempt to elucidate. McCarthy did not target the labor movement as such because the post WWII social contract between labor and big business was essentially class-collaborationist. The union movement would keep its mouth shut about foreign interventions in exchange for higher wages, job security, etc. Social peace at home accompanied and eased the way of US capitalist expansionism overseas. The only obstacle to this social contract was the ideological left, those members of the union movement, the media, etc. They were all possible supporters of the Vietminh and other liberation movements. McCarthy wanted to purge the union movement of these elements, but not destroy the union movement itself. Turning our clock forward to 1996, does anybody think that Buchanan intends to break the power of the US working-class? Does big business need Buchanan when the Arkansas labor-hater is doing such a great job?
The SWP has had a tremendous attraction toward “catastrophism”. Turning the clock forward from 1954 to 1988, we discover resident genius Jack Barnes telling a gathering of the faithful that capitalism finally is in the eleventh hour. In a speech on “What the 1987 Stock Market Crash Foretold”, he says:
“Neither past sources of rapid capital accumulation nor other options can enable the imperialist ruling classes to restore the long-term accelerating accumulation of world capitalism and avert an international depression and general social crisis….
“The period in the history of capitalist development that we are living through today is heading toward intensified class battles on a national and international scale, including wars and revolutionary situations. In order to squeeze out more wealth from the labor of exploited producers….
“Before the exploiters can unleash a victorious reign of reaction [i.e., fascism], however, the workers will have the first chance. The mightiest class battles of human history will provide the workers and exploited farmers in the United States and many other countries the opportunity to place revolutionary situations on the order of the day.”
Someone should have thrown a glass of cold water in the face of this guru before he made this speech. He predicted depression, but the financial markets ignored him. The stock market recovered from the 1987 crash and has now shot up to over 5000 points. His statement that nothing could have averted an international depression shows that he much better qualified at plotting purges than plotting out the development of capital accumulation.
His statement that the “period in the history of capitalist development that we are living through” is heading toward wars and revolution takes the word “period” and strips it of all meaning. Nine years have passed and there is neither depression nor general social crisis. Is a decade sufficient to define a period? I think all of us can benefit from Jack Barnes’ catastrophism if we simply redefine what a period is. Let us define it as a hundred years, then predictions of our Nostradamus might begin to make sense. Unfortunately, the art of politics consists of knowing what to do next and predictions of such a sweeping nature are worthless.
Sally Ryan posted an article from the Militant newspaper the other day. It states that Buchanan is a fascist:
“Buchanan is not primarily out to win votes, nor was he four years ago. He has set out to build a cadre of those committed to his program and willing to act in the streets to carry it out. He dubs his supporters the ‘Buchanan Brigades’….
“Commenting on the tone of a recent speech Buchanan gave to the New Hampshire legislature, Republican state representative Julie Brown, said, ‘It’s just mean – like a little Mussolini.’….
“While he is not about to get the Republican nomination, Buchanan is serious in his campaign. The week before his Louisiana win, he came in first in a straw poll of Alaska Republicans and placed third in polls in New Hampshire, where the first primary election will be held. He is building a base regardless of how the vote totals continue to fall. And he poses the only real alternative that can be put forward within the capitalist system to the like-sounding Clinton and Dole – a fascist alternative.”
These quotations tend to speak for a rather wide-spread analysis of Buchanan that a majority of the left supports, including my comrades on this list.
I want to offer a counter-analysis:
1) We are in a period of quiescence, not class confrontation.
Comrades, this is the good news and the bad news. It is good news because there is no threat of a fascist movement coming to power. It is bad news because it reflects how depoliticized the US working-class remains.
There is no fascist movement in the United States of any size or significance. It is time to stop talking about the militias of Montana. Let us speak instead of New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco, etc. Has there been any growth of fascism? Of course not. In New York, my home town, there is no equivalent of the German- American bund, the fascists of the 1930s who had a base on New York’s upper east side, my neighborhood.
There are no attacks on socialist or trade union meetings. There are not even attacks on movements of allies of the working-class. The women’s movement, the black movement, the Central American movement organize peacefully and without interference for the simple reason that there are no violent gangs to subdue them.
The reason there are no violent gangs of fascists is the same as it was in the 1950s. We are not in a period of general social crisis. There are no frenzied elements of the petty-bourgeoisie or the lumpen proletariat being drawn into motion by demagogic and charismatic leaders like Mussolini or Hitler. There are no Silver Shirts that the labor or socialist movement needs protection from.
There is another key difference from the 1930s that we must consider. Capital and labor battled over the rights of labor within the prevailing factory system. Capitalism has transformed that factory system. Workers who remain in basic industry are not fighting for union representation. They simply want to keep their jobs. Those who remain employed will not tend to enter into confrontations with capital as long as wages and benefits retain a modicum of acceptability. That is the main reason industrial workers tend to be quiescent and will remain so for some time to come.
In the 1930s, workers occupied huge factories and battled the bosses over the right to a union. The bosses wanted to keep these factories open and strikes tended to take on a militant character in these showdowns. Strike actions tended to draw the working-class together and make it easier for socialists to get a hearing. This was because strikes were much more like mass actions and gave workers a sense of their power. The logical next step, according to the socialists, was trade union activity on a political level and, ultimately, rule by the workers themselves.
The brunt of the attack today has been downsizing and runaway capital. This means that working people have a fear of being unemployed more than anything else. This fear grips the nation. When a worker loses a job today, he or she tends to look for personal solutions: a move to another city, signing up for computer programming classes, etc. Michael Moore’s “Roger and Me” vividly illustrated this type of personal approach Every unemployed auto worker in this film was trying to figure out a way to solve their problems on their own.
In the face of the atomization of the US working class, it is no surprise that many workers seem to vote for Buchanan. He offers them a variant on the personal solution. A worker may say to himself or herself, “Ah, this Buchanan’s a racist bigot, but he’s the only one who seems to care about what’s happening to me. I’ll take a gamble and give him my vote.” Voting is not politics. It is the opposite of politics. It is the capitalist system’s mechanism for preventing political action.
2) Buchanan is a bourgeois politician.
Pat Buchanan represents the thinking of an element of the US ruling class, and views the problems of the United States from within that perspective. Buchanan’s nationalism relates very closely to the nationalism of Ross Perot, another ruling class politician.
A consensus exists among the ruling class that US capital must take a global route. The capitalist state must eliminate trade barriers and capital must flow to where there is greatest possibility for profit. Buchanan articulates the resentments of a section of the bourgeoisie that wants to resist this consensus. It would be an interesting project to discover where Buchanan gets his money. This would be a more useful of one’s time than comparing his speeches to Father Coughlin or Benito Mussolini’s.
There are no parties in the United States in the European sense. In Europe, where there is a parliamentary system, people speak for clearly defined programs and are responsible to clearly defined constituencies. In the United States, politics revolves around “winner take all” campaigns. This tends to put a spotlight on presidential elections and magnify the statements of candidates all out of proportion.
Today we have minute textual analysis of what Buchanan is saying. His words take on a heightened, almost ultra-real quality. Since he is in a horse race, the press tends to worry over each and every inflammatory statement he makes. This tends to give his campaign a more threatening quality than is supported by the current state of class relations in the United States.
3) The way to fight Buchanan is by developing a class alternative.
The left needs a candidate who is as effective as Buchanan in drawing class lines.
The left has not been able to present an alternative to Buchanan. It has been making the same kinds of mistakes that hampered the German left in the 1920s: ultraleft sectarianism and opportunism. Our “Marxist-Leninist” groups, all 119 of them, offer themselves individually as the answer to Pat Buchanan. Meanwhile, social democrats and left-liberals at the Nation magazine and elsewhere are preparing all the reasons one can think of to vote for the “lesser evil”.
What the left needs to do is coalesce around a class-based, militant program. The left has not yet written this program, despite many assurances to the contrary we can hear on this list every day. It will have to be in the language of the American people, not in Marxist- Leninist jargon. Some people know how speak effectively to working people. I include Michael Moore the film-maker. I also include people like our own Doug Henwood, and Alex Cockburn and his co-editor Ken Silverstein who put out a newsletter called “Counterpunch”.
Most of all, the model we need is like Eugene V. Debs and the Socialist Party of the turn of the century, minus the right-wing. Study the speeches of Debs and you get an idea of the kind of language we need to speak. Our mission today remains the same as it was in turn of the century Russia: to build a socialist party where none exists.