“In order to be capable of foreseeing anything with regard to fascism, it is necessary to have a definition of that idea. What is fascism? What is its base, its form, and its characteristics? How will its development take place? It is necessary to proceed in a scientific and Marxian manner.”
Trotsky, Letter to Shachtman, 15 November 1931
Thomas Carolan (Trump, Caligula and Nero, Solidarity 580, 3 February 2021) warns that “By any one of a dozen tests, Trump is a fascist”. In Solidarity 564, (23 September 2020) he wrote: “a fascist is what Trump is in his opinions and in his actions where he is free to act as he likes. The USA is not fascist.” Martin Thomas (Solidarity 584, 3 March 2021) says Trump is a fascist because “he aims for autocratic rule unrestrained by bourgeois democracy, and is building a mass plebeian movement on nationalist and populist lines, with a significant militarised component, as his battering-ram to achieve that.” These are assertions, lacking proof.
Fascism has a precise meaning for Marxists. Trotsky: “Names are used to distinguish between concepts; concepts, in politics, in turn serve to distinguish among real forces.” Fascism is an exceptional form of bourgeois politics. The goal of fascist movements is the annihilation of the working-class movement, particularly when it threatens capitalist rule. Fascist movements create mass plebian armed bands that physically attack the labour movement, especially its most militant sections. After they take power, the fascists systematically destroy the labour movement and bourgeois democracy.
The classic examples are Mussolini and Hitler. Fascism takes different forms, but fascist movements and fascist governments have those ends and means in common. The political conclusion: labour movements must immediately organise their own forces to physically combat nascent fascists.
In 1919, Mussolini formed his fascio di combattenti. On 15 April 1919, fascists burned down the offices of the Socialist Party’s Avanti newspaper in Milan. In January 1920, Gramsci warned that “the bourgeoisie cannot avoid the fate that awaits it other than by recourse to a reactionary and military dictatorship, and sooner or later this is what it will do”.
In August 1920, over half a million workers seized factories throughout Italy. Workers organised production and in places formed red guards. At the height of the factory occupations, the CGL union leadership repudiated the movement. It was isolated and withered.
In November 1920, fascists in Bologna deposed the Socialist-led council and destroyed the offices of working-class organisations. The reign of terror by fascist militias continued. Angelo Tasca, in The Rise of Italian Fascism (1938), collected an incomplete list of 726 fascist attacks for the first half of 1921. These included the destruction of 17 newspapers and printing works, 119 Chambers of Labour and 151 socialist or communist clubs. Between January and May 1921, more than 200 workers were killed and over a thousand wounded by the fascists.
Gramsci excoriated the Giolitti government, which demobilised officers on condition that they join the fascists, giving them arms and ammunition. By mid-1921, the fascists had built their paramilitary base, marching on Rome in October 1922.
In June 1923, Clara Zetkin authored the first Comintern assessment of the fascist seizure of power. She wrote: “The fascist groups for terrorist subjugation of the working class in Italy are the so-called squadrons... The squadrons developed over time into a purely military force, one that carried out the coup and underpins Mussolini’s dictatorial power... At the time of the fascist coup, they numbered between 100,000 and 300,000.”
Between 1918 and 1923, the German labour movement was militant and powerful. Despite the Versailles treaty, there were still hundreds of thousands of paramilitaries. The Nazi party’s stormtroopers (SA) were founded in November 1920. In 1926 SA leader Franz von Pfeffer stated: “Unquestionably, it is first and foremost the SA that sets us apart from the ordinary parties in parliament. The SA will guarantee our victory once the parliamentary system and its ‘means’ collapse.”
According to Daniel Siemens’ book, Stormtroopers: A New History of Hitler's Brownshirts (2017) after the Nazi electoral breakthrough in September 1930, the SA grew from 77,000 in January 1931 to 221,000 in November 1931. It had more than 400,000 fighters by August 1932.
The SA savagely attacked the labour movement. Official nationwide statistics for 1931 counted more than 8,000 people injured or killed as a result of political violence. In June and July 1932 alone, politically linked riots, brawls and assassinations in Germany caused the deaths of more than 300 people and injured more than a thousand.
In December 1931, Trotsky warned the German Communists that “should fascism come to power, it will ride over your skulls and spines like a terrific tank”. In January 1932, Trotsky argued that “the gist of fascism and its task consist in a complete suppression of all workers’ organisations and in the prevention of their revival”. When a state turns fascist “it means first of all for the most part that the workers’ organisations are annihilated”.
Hitler was appointed Chancellor in January 1933. The Nazis interned at least 80,000 socialists and trade unionists during their first year in power. The Nazi repression of the Communist Party alone saw 150,000 arrested and ultimately 20,000 party members killed.
The US far right today
There are 75,000-100,000 people affiliated to white supremacist groups in the United States, according to Cynthia Miller-Idriss, Hate in the Homeland: The New Global Far Right (2020). Even the Department for Homeland Security says that white supremacists remain “the most persistent and lethal threat”.
A Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) report, The War Comes Home (October 2020) found that white supremacists conducted 41 attacks in the United States between January and August 2020. It stated that four people had been killed in four incidents by white supremacists. The CSIS report points to “a handful of groups—such as The Base, the Atomwaffen Division (including rebranded versions such as the National Socialist Order), and the Feuerkrieg Division—with some leadership structure and command-and-control arrangements”. There are also looser groups, including the Three Percenters, Oath Keepers, Boogaloos and QAnon,
A Southern Poverty Law Center report, Far-Right Political Rallies in the Trump Era (August 2020), found that between 2016 and 2018, there was a major upswing in street mobilisation by far-right groups, with 125 rallies, marches and protests nationwide organised and attended by white supremacists, neo-Nazis, Klansmen, the “alt-right” and right-wing reactionaries. There were 74 of these events in 2017 alone. Between 2014 and 2018, men influenced by the far-right in the United States killed 81 people. At least 40 of those killings happened in 2018.
This violence is serious, but needs to be understood in historical context. The threat is real. It could become the basis of a mass fascist movement. But the number of rallies and fatalities are still relatively limited. The far right remains fragmented. Sections of it are now disillusioned with Trump.
Trump is undoubtedly a right wing authoritarian – not an ordinary bourgeois politician. He has certainly encouraged and amplified fascists and militias in the US. But Carolan and Thomas never explain when, how or why Trump became a fascist. They don’t explain what is distinctive about Trump that makes him a fascist, compared with other reactionary, far-right politicians globally.
Carolan and Thomas don’t explain why, when Trump had majorities in the House of Representatives and the Senate, he did not shutdown bourgeois democracy and actively repress the labour movement. They don’t explain why having been in power as a ‘fascist’, he then gave it up, rather than be overthrown or die in office – as fascists have tended to do.
Carolan and Thomas don’t address why Trump lacks his own militia or explain how far he actually controls the amorphous far right. They do not assess the social weight and direction of the militias’ violence.
Even if Trump were a proto-fascist, it would not lead to the central political conclusions drawn by Carolan and Thomas – vote for and orientate to the Democrats. The shrill use of ‘fascist’ functions to lever their desired change of political orientation. They mischaracterise Trump in order to shoe-horn their political conclusion: to vote for and work inside the Democratic Party.
The Democrats are a bourgeois party by their history, programme, structure, personnel and funding. Under Clinton they made workers’ pay for economic dislocation in the 1990s. Under Obama (and Biden) they made workers’ pay for the crisis of 2008. The Democrats helped hollow out bourgeois democracy in the US and kept the labour movement quiescent. They helped creat the conditions for the rise of the far right.
Marxist assessments of fascism, starting with Zetkin and Trotsky, concluded that the labour movement cannot rely on the bourgeois parties to fight fascism. In reality, bourgeois parties and their governments facilitate the rise of fascism. If US workers now have to fight a burgeoning fascist movement, then they cannot trust or have any confidence in the Democratic Party.