by Michael Novick
June 10, 2003
There are, roughly speaking, three views of fascism out there: 1) the way fascism presents itself; 2) the way competing rulers, and competing strategies and ideologies within imperialism present it; and 3) the way working class oriented revolutionaries, whether anarchist or socialist, have traditionally seen it. I think all those views are wrong, but I'll sketch them out. I think these incorrect understandings of fascism reflect incorrect understandings of class society and colonialism as a whole.
Fascism presents itself as revolutionary, anti-capitalist and anti-communist, nationalistic and militaristic, a vanguard that welds together a "volk" into a fighting machine in which a new state and social order is created that purges weakness, sentimentality, and "alien" influences, particularly insofar as it defends "womanhood."
Competing imperialist ideologies and rulers, generally speaking, portray fascism as uniquely totalitarian, nationalistic, militaristic, racist, religiously and xenophobic, to which anti-gay and anti-woman have been added more recently.
Communist and anarchist analyses have tended to portray fascism as reactionary, anti-working class but using racial and religious scapegoating to manipulate workers into lining up behind an iconic "maximum leader." Sexual repression, particularly latent or repressed homoeroticism, is often emphasized. All three views portray fascism as the master of propaganda and spectacle, (and as noted, as nationalistic and militaristic).
What’s wrong with these views? How can a more correct understanding guide anti-fascist practice?
Fascists, rival imperialists, and euro/worker-centric communists and anarchists, all have, for purposes of their own, reasons to disguise the true nature of fascism, and to distinguish it categorically from other "less evil" forms of class society and oppressive/exploitive rule. Fascists want to present themselves as revolutionary anti-capitalists (may even believe they are) in order to cement a mass base and mass participation in their effort.
Other rulers and imperial ideologies/strategies want to portray fascism as evil incarnate, the bogey man in comparison to whom their exploitation, oppression, militarism and repressive measures look benign or justified. They use fascism as a threat to dangle if resistance steps up -- "Look how much worse things can be; we're the best deal you're going to get." Kind of "apres moi, le deluge" -- unite with your own bourgeoisie because fascists would be so much worse.
Euro/worker-centric socialists and anarchists are blinded to the true nature of fascism -- and of their own projects --because they believe their approach will run their advanced industrial societies better (that is, deep down they still accept the empire). In some cases they are actually seeking an alliance with "their own" bourgeoisie, with whom they can make common cause against the fascists.
If all these views are wrong, what is right? People understand that there is a vital connection between imperialism and fascism. As the US has become more openly imperialist, there is a common widespread fear that “fascism” is on the immediate horizon here, arising from the Bush administration. But to really understand what is going on, we need to take a step back to get a clearer and more valid picture of the real context of empire and class society within which fascism operates.
European nation states are better understood as empire states. Great Britain/UK, France, Spain, Sweden, etc. were each an empire in themselves, consolidated within a territory and an economic bio-region through the leadership of the bourgeoisie (leadership therefore implying the independent participation of other classes and strata, whose efforts were cohered and subsumed into the bourgeoisie's project). Germany and Italy -- where fascism emerged most fully and (briefly) triumphantly -- both had failed to consolidate such empire states completely or in a timely manner. The fascists set themselves the task of accomplishing what their bourgeoisie had failed to do -- propel Germany and Italy into full domestic empire state status and full international participation in carving up the rest of the globe. (This is actually quite similar to what happened in the Czarist Russian empire, where the communists set themselves the task of completing the revolution the Russian bourgeoisie had proven itself incapable of carrying out, particularly in agriculture).
So, we see that fascism in Europe, particularly German and Italian fascism, set itself the task of completing the empire-state building process that their bourgeoisie had proven incapable of carrying out. For Germany, especially, this meant redrawing the map of Europe itself, and building an extensive empire within the heart of Europe. This ultimately proved intolerable to the British (and the US), who thus delineated Hitler's Germany in particular as beyond the limits of "acceptable" imperialist behavior.
But Hitler's philosophy, ideology and mechanisms of rule were rooted in imperialism, in lessons learned from US empire building and scientific 'race relations,' as well as that empire’s industrialization, modernization, and integration of immigrant workers into an “Americanized” proletariat -- reservations, sterilization, white supremacist mass organizations, mass merchandising. Some of the cells which formed Hitler’s National Socialist German Workers Party were actually composed of former members of the US KKK who returned to Germany in the 20’s after the US Klan collapsed. Nazi views and practices also grew out of the German colonial experience in Africa, where they carried out a mass genocide of the Herero people of Namibia (aka German Southwest Africa). The Nazi party distinguished itself from other right wing parties and movements, however, in its willingness to develop armed power outside the alleged ‘monopoly’ of the state, and to carry forward independent action based on other class strata, regardless of bourgeois dictates. Nonetheless, even the Nazi party, like Mussolini’s fascists, participated in and was legitimated by the bourgeois electoral system.
In general, fascism can best be understood as bringing the methods of imperial rule in the colonies into the metropole. It is no coincidence that Franco launched the Falangist campaign from a colonial garrison, or that later French fascist forces were based in the settler-colonists of Algeria. In the colonies, genocide has been the rule, not the exception, of imperial rule. "Democracy" is only for a select few settlers; dictatorship and slave labor apply to the indigenous and other colonized people. The corporate model of economic organization, later applied by the fascists to the state itself, developed in colonial enterprise. The first corporations were the colonizing corporations -- British East India Company, Hudson's Bay Company, etc. -- who could bear the costs and risks of colonization because of shared and limited liability, and who exercised state power directly over the colonized territories and populations. The mass base of participation in colonial rule came via the settler population, who participated actively and often independently in land grabs and extermination without waiting for bourgeois legitimacy.
All this was translated to the metropole by Hitler, however he may have defined or proclaimed his system. Except that the mechanisms -- dictatorship, slave labor, corporatization of the state and society, mass participation in militarism, looting and oppression independently of the bourgeoisie -- were seen operating directly within the German population at large, including against its racially and ethnically defined minorities, and against its European neighbors. Hitler was intolerable to Churchill and Roosevelt, not because of philosophical differences, but because the state he created empowered Germany to remake the existing world economic order. Hitler’s genocide of the Jews is defined as unique because it was carried out against Europeans, inside Europe.
US capital played a strong role in building Hitler’s war machine, perhaps hoping as Britain did that it could safely be directed against the Soviets. In any event, once the die was cast, and global war became inevitable, the ‘democracies’ showed no compunction in waging warfare on a mass scale against both German and Japanese civilians. Nor, once the war was won, in swiftly incorporating the nazi apparatus into the US military, space program, and national security state apparatus, especially the CIA.
Colonialism is not dead history. Although most (not all) direct colonialism has been ended, colonialism persists in neo-colonialism and in settler colonial societies. What is more, the imperial societies are re-colonizing the globe under doctrines of neo-liberalism, direct corporate rule via forms such as the WTO, and increasingly, the direct application of military might. However, to say there is no difference between capitalism and imperialism in general, and fascism in particular, is wrong. Fascism is a form of imperialism in extremis, moved to taking desperate measures in the name of survival (often, but not only, because of the strength of its conscious opposition). The degree to which fascism must emphasize its mass appeal and its revolutionary face is a measure of the weakening of the grip of "normal" imperial and colonial thinking within the working classes, and of their allegiance to the deal they got.
It is important to understand that saying imperialism sometimes takes fascist form is not the same as attributing fascism to a “ruling class plot.” All forms of imperialism, especially ‘modern’ imperialism and colonialism, have always been cross-class projects, in which working and other “subordinate” classes have always participated independently and directly, not merely under the direction of the bourgeoisie or “ruling” class.
Where there is not a revolutionary anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist threat manifest in the ranks of working and oppressed people, fascism may still appear necessary or desirable to the rulers or other strata because of other threats or other weaknesses of the bourgeoisie. What's more, fascist regimes are not necessarily going to ally with each other because of ideological affinities. Alliances will shift between and among 'democracies' and 'dictatorships' just as they did before, during and after World War II. So we may see US Christian fascists opposing Arab Muslim fascists or Hindu supremacist fascists. This “anti-fascism” does not preclude simultaneous fascist initiatives within their own society.
Similarly, state and bourgeois-based fascist elements may move against other fascist forces within their own society, particularly those that emphasize the anti-elitist face of fascism. Fascism has always presented itself as a competing ideology for state building and economic advancement in colonized societies in opposition to anarchist, communist and other socially-liberatory ideologies. In the current period, we find fascist kernels in communities of color as well as within the white population. While such fascisms have often been subordinate to larger imperial forces, to the extent they prove capable of or interested in independent action, the fascism of imperial powers will define them as a particularly critical enemy.
The US is a special case because the US is a settler colonial, as well as an imperial society. It has always had elements of what became known as fascism operating within its society and state against internally colonized and enslaved populations and territories. The mass participation and base for this has fundamentally been the white settler population (although people of color have at times been incorporated, in a neo-colonial or modified settler role).
This is what George Jackson meant when he said fascism is already here. It was not rhetorical hyperbole or meaningless substitution of 'fascism' for 'capitalism.' The Black colony and especially Blacks within the prison system (the new plantation/ reservation = concentration camp) lived and live under conditions of fascism (including a cross-class racist alliance of white supremacist prisoners and guards who uphold the rule of the bourgeoisie and its state). But this is not true only in the prisons. The channeling of Black youth into prisons, parasitic criminal organizations, the military or neo-colonial regulation systems is a manifestation of fascist-style domination and incorporation of a threatening population. The fundamental basis of white privilege is that white working people are spared such fascist methods of rule so long as they remain loyal.
So there are substantial mass strata (including among white workers) for whom fascism of the more modern, "European" form has appeal, as well as sectors of the bourgeoisie and of the bureaucratic governing class who are accustomed to and predisposed towards fascist style rule. However, the turn to fascism does imply a change in the composition, structure, powers and rationale of the state, and in the forms of domination and exploitation of the metropolitan working class. The types of oppression and exploitation that have been directed at the (internally) colonized population begin to make themselves felt against the settlers as well, even as they are being courted and propagandized to adopt a new and more intimate and totalitarian identification with the rulers and empire.
I think this does describe what is happening in the US today. How better to understand the consolidation of support for Bush even as the economy sinks from the toilet into the septic tank? The process of fundamentally transforming the nature of the US state, not merely quantitatively in terms of repression, but qualitatively in terms its fundamental modes of operation and social contract, is happening primarily from the top down – orchestrated by the Bush regime and its supportive faction of the bourgeoisie. Only secondarily is it driven from the bottom up (more so by clerical fascist forces and neo-confederates closely allied to the rulers, less so by the white proletarians and petty bourgeois elements who are drawn into neo-nazi and other armed and violence prone formations. That means we must seriously prepare for situations of much more naked repression, perhaps akin to those which pertain in the colonial and semi-colonial areas -- the dirty war in Argentina, the Pinochet regime in Chile, the death squads in Central America, the Israeli Occupation Forces in Palestine, etc. That such repression may target open, self-proclaimed fascists does not negate its fascist character. Since the goal is stabilization in crisis, threats to stability are unwelcome.
Economic Crisis of the Empire and Industrialism
These statist, imperial forces see quite clearly that the economic and environmental crises facing their system require a re-incorporation of mass support on a different basis than the old imperial bribe. They also foresee and openly promise a period of ‘endless war’ and increasing militarization of the entire society. Less openly, but no less relentlessly, they are girding up for a military showdown with China. The prospect of taking on that battle, in the context of a dwindling economic pie of which they are taking a larger share, necessitates both increased repression and inventive methods of obtaining consent, for which ‘fascism’ is as good a code name as any.
The reason it's important to consider whether Bush is building a fascist state in the US is not a matter of semantics but of survival. Or perhaps more currently, we need to understand exactly how the rulers are transforming the nature of the state, and what initiatives will be undertaken by or allowed for non-ruling class forces to push forward fascism independently of the rulers. What is vital is seeing how what is happening is rooted in pre-existing cross-class alliances that must be smashed if we have a chance to turn the crisis into an opportunity for a liberatory transformation of this society and state. If people see anti-fascist struggle as a means to return to a mythical democratic, egalitarian past, we are indeed doomed.
In a certain sense, whether we call it fascism is immaterial. The question is, what room do we have to maneuver, what timetable do we have to operate on, what methods of organization and struggle are appropriate or likely to be successful in the current period? The timetable and nature of organizing, as well as the means of struggle appropriate and necessary to pursue, will be affected by the nature of the state we confront. So will the kind of alliances we can make and the type of organizations we build.
Withstanding Fascism & Brutality
Fascism, however we "define" it, has meant a particularly brutal and harsh form of governance within imperial metropoles, a much more active pursuit of genocide, a more naked and totalitarian form of domination of labor and other mass organizations. This is not a linguistic question. Other forms of social and political organization are also capable of excesses, but fascism distinguishes itself by seeking to reconstitute the individual personality and the state in a ‘revolutionary; fashion. In the third world, imperialism has long operated through dictatorial, militaristic puppet regimes that carried out bloody repression. Whether those can correctly be called "fascist" is arguable -- they are responding to pressures from above and outside their own societies and often have a limited mass base within. But if we are facing anything close to that, we need to adjust our organizing dramatically.
I think the current political context in the US, whether we label it fascist or not, calls for a whole range of things connected to the idea of more clandestine struggle (I am not thinking of illegal or armed action here). Nonetheless, we do need to incorporate the same sense that ‘from-below” fascist forces have long grasped – that independent political action must make use of all forms of struggle and all means of exerting countervailing power. The abiding lesson of fascism is that the alleged state monopoly on armed power is a polite fiction aimed at disarming the oppressed.
We need to strategize based on an understanding that mainstream media work is almost entirely pointless, at least as currently conceived. The FCC has put the finishing stroke on a set of media "regulations" that will finalize the transformation of "journalism" and "entertainment" into corporate/state propaganda. Simply turning back the final straw, after the camel’s back has been broken, is not enough. Previous court rulings have made it clear that freedom of speech and the press are essentially protected only for corporate interests. Mainstream electoral work -- in an era when the Supreme Court has ruled, and enforced the doctrine, that there is no individual right to vote in the US -- is similarly pointless. I think some alternatives are happening -- developing our own media, pirate radio, webcasting, using indymedia -- but remember, the Internet is closely monitored and subject to being choked off. I think we might want to look back into bulletin board systems (direct connect phone call into a computer storing information).
We need to cultivate relationships with media that serve people of color. There was a significant difference between the attitudes of people of color towards the war and coverage of the war in POC media (even bourgeois, mainstream, corporate POC media), and those of the white population and the general media. Chicken or egg doesn't matter here, but in NY, Chicago, LA, Atlanta etc. there are Black, Spanish-language, Asian and other "minority" oriented media outlets that still provide a little room and outlet that is unavailable in general-audience print and broadcast media.
Relatedly, we need to focus more energy on less public forms of organizing -- something besides demonstrations. I think we need to organize deeper and more sustained initiatives of our own away from public scrutiny, not simply reacting to state and fascist provocations. We need to listen more, as a means not only of intelligence gathering on the enemy, but also of understanding what's on the minds of the people we want to work with and among. We need to develop community-based grass roots anti-racist and anti-empire work that has endurance, and that rewards people in the doing of it. I am not saying to abandon confrontation with nazis, but public venues are going to be increasingly controlled and subject to massive repression. The same holds true for anti-globalization protests at WTO-type gatherings. We need to think about methods of infiltration and subversion of state and fascist initiatives, as well as counter-organizing a base for anti-racist culture and resistance among people who would otherwise be drawn to the nazi “solution.”
Organizing Below the Radar
We need to build a legal/self defense component into all our work, anticipating busts, frame-ups and harassment. We need to build stronger outside networks of support for people locked down, materially and otherwise. There needs to be thought about safe houses, cultivation of supporters who never do anything public to identify themselves with the anti-racist movement, secure means of covert communication, transportation and release and dissemination of information. In other words, we need to adopt some methods of organization better suited to conditions of occupation or fascism, and to the extent we can get at all ahead of the curve on this, it will be a lot easier to do, and a lot likelier to survive the repression. We need to think about building redundancy in all that.
Organizing and outreach into the prisons and the military are vital. These spheres, along with workplace organizing, have always had some of the characteristics of occupation or fascism that impede open organizing. They are vital areas in which to work (the degree of state and bourgeois repression applied in these arenas under "normal democracy" being a measure of their strategic importance). They are an important proving ground of our ability to organize under such conditions as well as our capacity to craft a message and practice that engages the people we want to reach. This is also true for work with high school students, for many of the same reasons (especially as the military increasingly penetrates the schools).
One key to understanding fascism is to grasp, and counter, the appeal fascism makes to women. The male-dominated left tends to discount the revolutionary potential of women, the need for a strategy to deal with the role of violence in the lives of women and children, and the efforts of fascists to present themselves as the answer to women's problems. A fuller discussion and an attempt to develop practice based on a deeper understanding of those issues must take place in a sustained way. They definitely relate to this whole period. The state has moved into this arena in various ways. Bush’s use of Afghan women as justification for launching his war on Al Qaeda, the Taliban and Afghanistan is one clear example. Another notable one is creation by the Pentagon of a network of organizers out of "army wives," whose job it is to maintain morale and support for the war efforts among the families of the troops.
Faith-based groups some of whom are hard-core pacifists, must be addressed in an anti-fascist strategy, just as “White Rose” Catholics formed one base of anti-fascist resistance in Hitler’s Germany. Such groups also have a long history of civil resistance, sanctuary-type activities regarding unjust immigration policies, and otherwise breaking the law or doing secret work for reasons of conscience. I think we might be able to learn a great deal from them. I invite responses and discussion of these ideas.
Michael Novick is author of White Lies, White Power: The Fight Against White Supremacy and Reactionary Violence. He is an organizer with Anti-Racist Action, which publishes Turning the Tide, a quarterly journal on anti-racism activism, research and education. This article is the lead editorial from the up-coming issue of Turning the Tide (Volume 16 Number 2, Summer 2003), available from: ARA, PO Box 1055, Culver City CA 90232; 310-495-0299. Michael can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org