As we all know this is an election year. California Red recognizes that there are different points of view within DSA regarding how the organization should approach electoral politics in general and the presidential election this year in particular.
Fred Glass (with permission)
2024: The fascist danger
During a panel presentation on “Labor Communications and the Left” at the annual International Labor Communications Association conference in San Diego in December, I asked the audience of a hundred or so union staffers from several dozen labor organizations two questions. “How many of you think that there is a serious possibility that the day after the election in November we will wake up to find ourselves in a fascist country?” Around two thirds of the room slowly raised their hands. “What, if anything, are you as labor communicators planning to do to stop that from happening?” No one raised their hand.
This was perhaps an unfair question. The first day of the conference had been euphoric, as one presenter after another recounted the tremendous strike victories that their unions had won—autoworkers, actors, screenwriters, hotel workers, grad students and others—over the previous year, and how their communications strategies had contributed to the wins. Not yet into the 2024 calendar year, perhaps it was too much to expect that their unions had started thinking seriously about the coming elections, and how to convert strike energies and strategies into political action. And yet….
Pretty much everyone with eyes open will agree that the Republican Party has steadily devolved over the past few decades into a fascist party. And with the rise of Donald Trump since 2016 as its leader, the rotten cherry is on top of that fully baked shit pie.
The term “fascist” is mostly thrown about loosely to mean someone you don’t like, or who acts in a bullying manner. Getting closer to what fascism looks like historically, the term is used to describe an authoritarian regime or police state.
But there are various types of those forms of government, and even people serious about a rigorous definition can disagree about fundamentals. The trouble is partly that fascism isn’t a cookie cutter phenomenon, as it crops up in specific geographic and historic circumstances, which causes different surface appearances and even structural variations, with some qualities more prominent than others depending on where and when.
The best attempt I know of to provide a definition useful across time and space is Thomas Paxton’s, from his The Anatomy of Fascism:
a form of political behavior marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation, or victimhood, and by compensatory cults of unity, energy, and purity, in which a mass-based party of committed nationalist militants, working in uneasy but effective collaboration with traditional elites, abandons democratic liberties and pursues with redemptive violence and without ethical or legal restraints goals of internal cleansing and external expansion.
This is a good start (if quite a mouthful), but at least two unaddressed questions for our current situation arise out of this definition: the role of the charismatic leader, and how the "mass-based party of committed nationalist militants" matches up in a country like ours without a parliamentary system and only two mass parties. For these questions, the Republican Party has been providing answers, step by step, for decades, accelerating the past eight years with Trump’s foot on the pedal.
Paxton firmly roots his discussion in historical case studies—not just the classic scenarios of Italy and Germany after World War I, but close examinations of more recent examples. But he is not a socialist, and he fails to distinguish Marxism and Stalinism. He notes but does not fully explore the implications of fascism’s customary appearance as a right-wing populism framed for working class followers as an anti-elitist faux socialism (e.g., National Socialism in Germany) to counter a rise in popularity of socialist remedies to economic and political crisis. Let’s just recall how Bernie Sanders restored a socialist analysis to political conversation simultaneously with the rise of Trump.
The characteristics Paxton ascribes to fascism thus lack a necessary class component. Ultimately a fascist movement, usually perceived by the capitalist class initially as a threat, becomes the defense of that class, as the upstart party entrenches itself in state power, and a significant fraction of the holders of economic power, used to operating under the fig leaf of political democracy, figures out how to make their accommodation with this more direct form of violent domination of the other social classes.
The word none dare speak
From 2016 on and throughout Trump’s term in office, “fascism” was the word most liberals and much of the left refused to speak. Although evidence began mounting up during Trump’s first campaign, people were (and remain, if less so) leery of the term; they should not be. He is a fascist. And he is the maximum leader of a fascist movement.
What does this mean? It means on November 6 we could wake up to find ourselves moving via a more or less legitimate democratic means of an election to a non-democracy: a police state, a country where the conditions that at various times and in various places have been the norm for African Americans and other historically oppressed and marginalized groups, become extended to the entire population.
What might this look like? Take a look at the treatment of socialists, trade unionists, gay people, trans people, women under fascism. For people of color, recall that the anti-Jewish laws devised in Nazi Germany were modeled on the Jim Crow laws of the southern United States. What goes around comes around. Given the advances in surveillance and other repressive technologies in the hands of the state and private corporations today, this will be a fascism on steroids.
With the rise of a mass movement for a ceasefire in Gaza, a new generation has been introduced to anti-imperialist politics. This is a hopeful development, but the promise of creating an international dimension for post-Bernie socialist youth faces some challenges. At an anti-APEC street demonstration in San Francisco late last year, I saw a few young people holding a banner that read, “Dis-elect Biden”. A man of about sixty on a bicycle was riding by and stopped. The dialogue that followed was not productive. He said he was for a ceasefire, but if we “dis-elected Biden” we would get Trump. The young people said that they didn’t care, there was no difference between the two. The man on the bike became apoplectic, and security had to step over and separate the arguers.
No “lesser of two evils”?
A common refrain at the Palestine demonstrations and in individual conversations I’ve been hearing and having with young activists is that they will not vote for the “lesser of two evils”, let alone work for Biden. This is an understandable principled position, but also a historically blinkered point of view.
Anger against Biden for his failure to pressure Israel into a ceasefire? Legitimate. A belief that there’s no difference between Trump and Biden because Biden is not stopping Israel’s genocidal war? Untrue.
That’s because it’s not about Biden. Every US president since the late nineteenth century has been an imperialist. The United States is the premiere imperialist country of the capitalist world system. It has military bases all over the world. The president is commander in chief of the armed forces. By definition, any US president—at least any so far, and Trump was certainly no different in this regard—is bound by the job to place the interests of US imperialism above the aspirations of the Palestinian people. Exchanging Biden for Trump would not change US policy toward Israel and Palestine immediately for the better and more likely for the worse. It would also squander the new momentum building within the Democratic base against the bipartisan anti-Palestinian racism unquestioned in US foreign policy for decades.
Retaining the possibility for a socialist movement
The possibility for socialists to build our movement remains with Democrats in power and supporting the party’s progressive wing. Please do not think I am saying that a vote for Biden or another Democrat is a move in the direction of socialism. I’m saying that we retain the possibility for building a mass socialist movement within a nominally democratic society; under a Trumpian fascism, that possibility will no longer exist. I’d suggest we listen to what he said at a rally last year: “We pledge to you that we will root out the communists, Marxists, fascists, and the radical left thugs that live like vermin within the confines of our country.”
Under fascism the time horizon for socialism recedes dramatically. Think Chile after the coup against Allende. Think a quarter century in Italy under Mussolini, four decades under Franco in Spain. Even without consideration of the obliteration of civil liberties, looming climate destruction tells us we don’t have that kind of time.
In short, to people who say “Let’s not hear about the lesser of two evils; I’m so done with the lesser of two evils”: what, you want the worser of two evils? This would not be just considerably worse; it would be qualitatively, disastrously worse. I don’t want to live out the remainder of my days in a fascist country. But I’m old. What I really don’t want is for my children and grandchildren—or anyone else—to experience fascism first-hand.
We have less than a year to keep our crumbling democracy on life support for another four years. I plan to keep going to ceasefire demonstrations for as long as it takes to bring it about. I also plan to work to keep the Democrats in power because of abortion rights, relatively progressive labor policies, their acknowledgment of the climate crisis, a stated commitment to civil rights and racial equality and much more.
I have no illusions about how far the Democrats will go to make these policies everything they should be. It’s a party divided between neoliberalism and progressive forces, and the neoliberals generally have the upper hand. But I also have no illusions that a fascist Republican Party in power will do anything but put us in the fast lane to destruction—of worker rights, women’s rights, civil rights and the planet itself.
Fred Glass is the author of From Mission to Microchip: A History of the California Labor Movement (University of California Press, 2016) and a member of the State Committee of California DSA.
North Star caucus members
antiracismdsa (blog of Duane Campbell)
Hatuey's Ashes (blog of José G. Pérez)
Authory and Substack of Max Sawicky
Online University of the Left
In These Times
The American Prospect
Black Agenda Report
Dollars and Sense
Working Families Party
Poor People's Campaign
Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism
Progressive Democrats of America
Democracy for America
Black Lives Matter
Movement for Black Lives
The Women's March
Jewish Voice for Peace
National Abortion Rights Action League
National Organization for Women
National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights