Beyond History: Stretching Our Understanding of Fascism

For decades, the idea that fascism was on the horizon was the result of partisan hyperbole, the labeling of things labeled a totalitarian evil as “fascist.” The tide has shifted and a mass right populist upsurge has made fascism a realistic possibility, both in the political sphere and at the street level, where essentialized identity, fear, and “othering” has increased levels of acceptance. The traditional Marxist understandings of fascism have given an unrealistic picture of what to expect from insurrectionary white supremacist movements since the interwar period and has left many organizers without the schematic for how the fascist right actually functions. It takes defining the terms and understanding its shape to figure what comes next, and how a radical vision can eradicate its seeds before they fully sprout.

It’s Cultural, Not Just Economic

The idea that fascism comes as a totalizing result of the ruling class’s assault on the workers movement is not only incorrect, it refuses the extent of fascism’s actual terror. Georgi Dimitrov’s address at the Seventh World Congress of the Communist International in July–August 1935 has often been cited by contemporary organizations trying to come to terms with fascism’s appeal, calling it “the open terrorist dictatorship of the most reactionary, most chauvinistic, and most imperialist elements of finance capital.” Leon Trotsky’s assertion that fascism is the “most ruthless dictatorship of monopoly capital” has also been revived in force, a definition that lack’s even the most basic connection to anything we would call fascism in a post-war world.

What both definitions try to accomplish is to see the how and where fascism comes from, not what it ideologically is. This is the function of scholars like Robert Paxon, who looks as the “stages” that fascism came to pass in interwar countries. His analysis is more useful and accurate, but again misses what we need in a modern context. Fascism is a cultural force and not simply the results of economic contradictions, and because of its inherent economic limitations does not represent a clear move towards self-interest for the propertied classes. Fascism itself is a mass movement, only available in the era of mass politics, and through that populism it is able to appeal to a large swath of the working class. This is done by sublimating class identity for racial or national ones, and doing so through a reframing of the issues of worker alienation in terms of culture rather than the means of production. While ruling class entities certainly got behind European fascist movements, they did not uniformly, and that is certainly not the case in the majority of neo-fascist minority movements.

This could, instead, be seen as the inability of capital to reconcile uniform interests, a splitting of their perspectives. The “three-way fight” analysis works well to explain this dynamic, where by many struggles can be divided up into the ruling class, the left or workers movement, and a reactionary or authoritarian movement that pulls from the populations that could go to the previous two. In anti-imperialist struggle for national liberation this analysis was seen most clearly, where by many movement include the people’s liberatory struggle as well as a far-right clerical or nationalist movements that, while decisively fighting the imperialist capitalist class, were repressive and frightening in their own right. Fascism can be seen in this way, as an element in society that can be as much a mass politic as the left, but turning workers against their own interests even if it is not directly controlled by a united ruling class.

Fascism Is Not Systemic Oppression or Authoritarianism

The loose application of the term fascism has often been synonymous with some type of authoritarianism, the state or corporations interfering into an individual’s life in Orwellian ways, or simply the extention of systemic white supremacy and colonialism. I am defining fascism as a form of essentialized identity and inquality, made revolutionary. This means that it believes human being are unequal, in nature and spirit, and that identities like race and gender are real and significant as social dividers. This concept is and of itself oppressive and authoritarian, but it is fundamentally different than those found in the liberal democracies in which fascism is rising. Instead, the authoritarianism of the bourgeois state is justifiable in its own terms: it is in the interests of capital and against the popular classes. White supremacy is systemic within that, yet sublimated publicly and denied as reality.

What a fascist movement does is make that oppression explicit instead of implicit, a significant change since it attempts to reshape the public opinion to consciously favor the suppression of marginalized groups. The violence of white nationalism is insurrectionary in this way, it explodes past the violence of the state in its view of the current system as insufficient in its attacks on people of color. Many fascist movement also see themselves as anti-authoritarian, even anti-state in that they see a profoundly different social order and want to see certain privileged people or groups as free from state repression. While this is rhetorical rather than reality, it does present itself as a fundmanetally different view of authority than the U.S. government in many cases.

The refocus on fascism should not distract from the ongoing legacy of institutional white supremacy and patriarchy or the “Big Brother” elements of the existing state, but the two are not one in the same.


The approach from much of the radical left centered in shopfloor militancy has been to analyze fascism on a purely political stage. The analysis of historian Robert Paxton centers this view, breaking down fascism into “5 stages” that go through the ideologues entering into a coalition, that coalition taking state power and breaking off allegiances, and moving to a period of increased authoritarianism and eventual collapse. This continues to see fascism in its functionary stages, how it works in statecraft. The problem here is that we are discussing the way that those movements played out in the largely primitive states of interwar Europe, all with their own unique baggage a century past.

If we want to look at neo-fascism, the fascism that is still a minority movement and vying for power, it has to be looked at in its essential qualities and not its political maneuvering. In the post-war world, fascist movements took their ideas of identity and inequality and focused on metapolitics, the cultural space that is pre-political and helps inform the values that determine politics down the line. This means entry into music and the arts, the use of philosophy and esoteric spirituality, and the reframing of values rather than just politics. If they can make the idea of human inequality normalized, to re-emphasize race as a valid dividing line, and to reinterpret the brutal crimes of colonialism as just the normal “struggle between races and civilisations for the future of the planet,” then they have the potential to enact their vision since they have reshaped the people who manifest the mass politics.

This struggle can be counterintuitive for organizers who have centered their ideas in the economic and political, where the battle is measured in material wins and losses. What can be learned from this, primarily, is where to find fascism, and it will often be in venues where conventional wisdom would tell us least to look.

Labor is Not Immune

The Traditionalist Workers Party was the brain child of Millenial white nationalist Matthew Heimbach, who wanted to combine the blue collar racist movements found in Patriot circles with the new-found “intellectual” approach of the Alt Right. He has founded his analysis in national socialism: the privileging of certain groups into a hierarchical vision that remains anti-capitalist. His socialism would solidify class collaboration, but would still attempt to maintain a reasonable material standard of living for white workers so they could perpetuate their caste through institutions of reproductive labor. His prerogative has set his sites on union members, especially in the skilled trades, since they have a stake in opposing “globalized” international capitalism and he could combine his own right-wing version of anti-capitalism with an intense nationalism. Against free trade, immigration, and billionaire tax breaks, he supports organized labor as an institution of the white worker, fighting finance capital that he sees as uniquely globalized, impersonal, and Jewish.

The labor movement is often assumed to be left in its character, just as anti-capitalism is. This is because its roots are in the anti-oppression class politics of the left, not the hierarchical vision of the right. Fascism turns this, like it does most left politics, on its head by using many of the political programs associated with the left to see through right-wing goals. They oppose capitalism because it destroys national and racial distinctiveness, pushes women into the workforce, and is a chaotic system that does not represent “natural hierarchies.” Their anti-capitalism instead wants to reinstitute natural hierarchies, a systematized form of class collaboration that keeps people in their classes. Their vision of the labor movement has a different endgame from the left’s, but it still is vying for a voice. It will do this by playing on labor’s darkest moments, of using civic nationalist rhetoric, of privileging skilled trades, and of collaborating with business leaders like Trump.

Acknowledging this means that a deeper rhetoric has to be used inside of the labor movement so that not only immediate gains are considered, instead keeping the long-term revolutionary syndicalist vision in mind as piecemeal gains are made.

The struggle to confront fascism is, itself, drawn from the exact avenues fascism takes towards power, through mass movements. The ability to draw people in the workers’ movement towards an antifascist praxis derives from the extent to which the work has been done to center anti-racist politics into a radical vision of class struggle. Syndicalists are historically centered in this struggle as the ability to build a new society out of a mass union politic is the same strategy necessary to confront a fascist movement that creeps into every area of social life. The power of workers in the workplace comes from the strength, and size, of the solidarity acquired, and that same principle plays out in the streets as the Alt Right attempts to co-opt the language of social strife. While drawing from the union movement gives us a tactical strength, it also displays limitations since this fight is one distinctly different from the history of class antagonisms that gave rise to the labor movement.

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