Seven more points on the US debates

Submitted by martin on 11 April, 2021 - 12:11 Author: Martin Thomas
MAGA protest

Part of an ongoing debate on the USA: click here to read all the contributions.

1. Fascism: Paul Hampton's and Barrie Hardy's articles

I think Paul Hampton's article suffers from a mistaken image of Hitler's Nazis as the one and only model of fascism. In fact, the Nazis were exceptional, perhaps unique, among fascist movements in having a core "cadre" with a strong and consistently-held ideology which held together for a decade before taking power; in being able to use its cadre to take over and dominate large parts of the state machine after taking power; and in being able and motivated to wipe out the labour movement very fast after taking power.

Barrie Hardy is right, I think, that 21st century fascist movements look different. In fact, most 1920s and 1930s fascist movements looked different. I've written about this elsewhere.

Even Paul's presentation of Mussolini (the "original model" of fascist politics, if you like) is warped by retrospective assimilation of Mussolini to the Nazi model.

R J B Bosworth's useful book on Mussolini's Italy has three chapters covering the period between 1919, when Mussolini founded the Fasci Italiani di Combattimento, a first format of his movement, and 1925, when his regime adopted the idea of "totalitarianism" (not part of its terminology before that) and moved to crush the unions and opposition parties. The three chapters are entitled:

'Becoming a Fascist'

'Learning to rule in the provinces'

'Learning to rule from Rome'

Mussolini first used the word "fasci" (meaning just "groups", and used by a number of other movements of the time) in 1919, and then filled out the content of "fascism" ("group-ism"), both for the public and for himself, over time.

In one branch discussion, a comrade asked: is it an essential part of the definition of fascism that a fascist movement or regime seeks war? No. In its early years Mussolini's regime did little military build-up. Even after 1933, initially, the most likely war it envisaged (but wanted to avoid) was one with Nazi Germany over Austrian claims to disputed territory held by Italy. Franco's Spain was careful to keep out of World War 2.

I've argued that in more general terms the document from Daniel Randall and others is off-key in its summary historical description of fascism in the 1920s and 30s in Europe.

I'll take the chance to note here also two other points made in previous contributions:

• To define your attitude by the negative of rejecting "a thoroughgoing activist orientation, of the type we currently have to the Labour Party, to the Democrats", as Daniel Randall and others do in their document, is unclear. No-one argues to equate the Democrats to the Labour Party. The one comparison with British politics made from the side of the debate I'm on, and made only with huge qualifications, is of the Democrats with the Liberal Party in the late 19th century.

• Mark Osborn's document submitted for voting says "We oppose US socialists having an activist orientation to the Democrats". But as far as I can see he doesn't mean that at all. Mark didn't object at the time to US socialists backing Sanders in the Democrat primaries, and has said nothing since to suggest he has changed his mind on this.

2. Erdogan and Bolsonaro

We should, I think, reject the sloppy catch-all concept of "creeping fascism" deployed by Neil Faulkner and others. I've written about this.

It's another matter to erect a mental "Chinese Wall" between political figures like Erdogan and fascism.

When Erdogan took power in Turkey in 2003, I at least was inclined to think that his politics were a moderate and slow-paced version, but a version, of our standard understanding of Islamist politics: clerical fascism. When we discussed with the comrades of Marksist Tutum, they told us this was completely wrong. Erdogan represented something more like an Islamic version of right-wing European Christian Democracy.

They were better-informed than we were (at least than I was), and seemed convincing. In its earlier years, the Erdogan regime introduced some liberalisations compared to the old Kemalist military-linked regimes. Even if a major motive was to ease negotiations with the EU, they were liberalisations.

Now, not just by gradual piecemeal measures but via a series of political crises such as the apparent military coup attempt of 2016 and Erdogan's (in effect) counter-coup, it looks like my first naive picture was not so wrong after all. It will take further crises for anything describable as fascism to consolidate, but it does look as if Erdogan is "becoming a Fascist" and "learning to rule" in a fascist way.

It would be wrong to assure Turkish leftists and workers: it's all right! We've analysed Erdogan, and found out that he's not a fascist! Phew! No danger of the labour movement being crushed, after all!

Consider also Jair Bolsonaro, president of Brazil. He has been president for over two years, and has not imposed himself as an autocrat. He doesn't have a militia movement behind him, though he evidently has strong support in certain sections of the police (like Trump; and maybe army). By the criteria put forward by some comrades, it's a clear-cut case. Definitely not a fascist, or quasi-fascist, or fascistic!

His son Eduardo Bolsonaro is also a leading political association (head of the Foreign Affairs Committee in Brazil’s House of Deputies). The younger Bolsonaro was in the USA visiting the Trump family just before 6 January. After the storming of the Capitol, Bolsonaro Jr applauded the effort, but derided its poor organisation. "If they had been organised, they would have taken the Capitol and made demands that would have been previously established by the invading group. They would have had a minimal war power so that nobody (on their side) would have died — to have killed all the police inside or the congressmen they all hate".

It's easier to be heroic from a distance than on the spot. If Bolsonaro Sr and Jr attempt something similar in Brazil after the 2022 presidential election there (they already hint at defying the vote, and Bolsonaro Sr is on the record as praising Brazil's 1960s-1980s military dictatorship), then maybe they will do no better than those who stormed the Capitol on 6 January 2021.

But Bolsonaro Jr's comment remains a clear statement that the Bolsonaros have been evolving fascistic ideas and building support on that basis. That they may well be blustering and incompetent does not mark them as "definitely not fascist".

3. Trump

Equally it would be wrong to assure US leftists and workers: it's all right! We are learned Marxists! Our expert historical knowledge shows that Trump is different from Hitler! Even from Mussolini! So, not a fascist! Phew! He's a bad guy, to be sure, but, after all, no danger of the labour movement and civil liberties being crushed!

If we dig under the noisy "Trump a fascist! Definitely not! How could you say such a thing?" headlines of Paul Hampton and other comrades, it looks like they don't want to give those assurances after all.

They say that Trump could become the central figure of a fascist movement, not just in some remote circumstances very different from today, but in the near future. What is that if not a fascist? If you want to say "quasi-fascist", "proto-fascist", "fascistic", or something like that, to indicate that Trumpism is still unconsolidated (and may in fact never consolidate), that's all right.

In June 2015, when Trump declared himself a candidate for the 2016 Republican nomination for president, he was a loose cannon and a demagogue, but nothing as formed as a fascist. At least one option in his mind must have been that he would use the political contest just as a stepping-stone to further his media career. Even when he took office in January 2017, he appointed people like Mattis and McMaster, widely seen as mainstream figures who would keep him in check, to leading offices. He had Reince Priebus as his chief of staff, although Priebus was a mainstream Republican and at the time of the Access Hollywood scandal, only four weeks before presidential polling day, had urged Trump to withdraw from the presidential race because (Priebus said) Trump was now bound to lose, and by a humiliating landslide.

From all the many accounts of Trump's presidency, it appears that the idea of becoming an autocrat, and being able to mobilise a mass plebeian movement as his battering-ram to achieve that status, grew on him over time. What also grew on him over time was frustration and anger against all that impeded him from being an autocrat.

There is no mystery about why he didn't immediately introduce fascist measures. He couldn't. He couldn't have done even if he had been a stronger character, more competent and resolute and with clearer purpose. The powers of the president of the USA are much more hemmed in than, for example, those of the president of France. They are hemmed in even if the president's party has a majority in both houses of Congress, and the president commands a strong majority among their Congress people. (See Biden today.)

Until John McCain died in August 2018, Trump faced strong opposition from a minority of the Republicans in Congress. Notoriously, McCain before his death asked that Trump not attend his funeral, and Trump rejected urgings from his staff to make the usual polite comments on McCain's death.

With Trump too, there is a process of "becoming a Fascist" and "learning to rule", or rather, for now, learning how he might rule, in a fascist way.

The consolidation of Trumpism into a fascist movement will come (if it does come) only with further crises. It would be foolish to suppose that the next years in the USA will provide no crises.

4. The Socialist Organiser article from 1984: the US constitution

In the 1984 article I wrote: "The president can obstruct Congress, Congress can obstruct the president, the Supreme Court can obstruct both, and the individual states can obstruct any federal decision. The end result is that change can be brought about only by very militant campaigns — such as the blacks waged in the 1960s — or by behind-the scenes consensus in the ruling class. Electoral politics is merely the means for gaining consent to whatever has already been decided, and for deciding which contender gets the spoils of office".

That explains why Trump could carry through relatively little in his term of office. It doesn't create guarantees, though. The creaky and obstacle-filled machinery of US government also creates a greater danger than in a more flexible system that in a time of crisis the ruling class could conclude that it is impossible to carry through effective government against the opposition of a mass fascistic movement, and there is no answer but to allow the movement to take power and try to restrain and control it. (As the Italian bourgeoisie did with Mussolini, and with some success too, insisting for example that he disband the Blackshirts and integrate them into the regular state forces under the command of old-regime officers.)

Kurt Gödel was one of the most ground-breaking mathematicians of the 20th century. He fled the Nazis from his native Austria, and Albert Einstein was able to get him a job at Princeton University in the USA. After a while, Einstein and other friends persuaded Gödel to apply to become a US citizen. For that, Gödel had to study the US constitution and show good knowledge of it.

Einstein and Oskar Morgenstern took Gödel to a formal hearing with a judge on his citizenship application. The judge was excited to meet Einstein, and talked with him at length about the horrors of Nazi Germany. Then he turned to Gödel, and remarked, chattily: "Of course, from your reading of the constitution, you now know that nothing like that could ever happen here".

"As a matter of fact", Gödel began, about to explain how his study of the constitution had shown many loopholes… Morgenstern kicked Gödel hard, under the table, and got him to stop before he spooked the judge and maybe convinced him that Gödel was a "communist" who should be denied citizenship.

Better to go with Gödel's scepticism than with over-confidence that a system of checks and balances designed centuries ago for a state run by landed gentry, and having accumulated glitches haphazard over the centuries, will serve as a reliable safeguard today.

5. The Socialist Organiser article from 1984: the Democrats

In 1984 the so-called "Sixth Party System" in the USA was still at an early stage of its development. The displacement of politics from structured party-machine organisations (precinct committees and so on) into primaries and individual candidate fund-raising was as yet limited. The taking-over of the Republican Party by strands of the far right, to a large degree "from the bottom", had hardly started. The polarisation of politics between Republicans and Democrats, and the elimination of the large cross-over of conservative Democrats to the right of liberal Republicans, was also at an early stage.

Equally, though, the heyday of union clout within the Democrats was long past. Union density started falling in the USA from the mid-1950s, whereas in Britain it was still rising up to 1979. The next period, especially the 1990s, would see a consolidation of neoliberalism at the top of the Democrats, spearheaded by people like Bill Clinton.

Left-wing stirrings in or around the Democrats were feeble. Jesse Jackson's "Rainbow Coalition" efforts in the presidential primaries in 1984 and 1988 had much less impact than Sanders' in 2016 and 2020. Today the DSA has grown since 2015 from an inactive group of some 5,000 members of median age 68 to an active if politically chaotic movement of over 90,000 people, mostly young. Then, it was as dormant as it would be in 2015.

So the attitude in the article to the Democrats is different from now.

Instructively, though, the comment in the article on movements like the New York Workingmen's Party of 1828-1832, and the Populist Party of the early 1890s, is not that they turned tactically to work around the Democrats and died as a result. It is that they were politically inchoate and unstable, formed by loose populist ideas, so fell apart politically, and as a result their activists were largely absorbed by the then-powerful Democrat machine. Politics first: just as Shachtman found himself mired in trying to pull union-bureaucrat strings in Democrat affairs because he had collapsed politically into a sort of Fabianism, rather than him collapsing politically because he had paid attention to Democrat affairs.

The Populists' decision to endorse the demagogic Democrat presidential candidate of 1896, William Jennings Bryan, had bad effect, but the politics behind that was a drive by a section of the Populist membership to replace its wider platform by the apparently more "realistic" cure-all of bimetallism (a currency based on both gold and silver) which was Bryan's chief plank.

The Stalinised Communist Party never really tried to intervene in the Democrat arena at all, except marginally. Its problem was not taint from attention to the Democrats but its pursuit of what it worked out to be the US application of "popular front" politics, which demanded a political accrediting of Roosevelt as an ally.

6. The "dirty break"

Some comrades have said that the "dirty break" may be a reasonable approach in principle, but the devil is in the detail, and the DSA is deficient.

Fair points. Also, I'm not qualified to say exactly how the detail should be worked out.

I'm fairly sure that the priority in the DSA is arguing for Marxist politics (against the welter of kitsch-leftism, left social democracy, and even Stalinoid strands, found there now) and for a democratic regime. I don't think the core problem with the DSA is it being dragged back by figures like AOC. When rank-and-filers in the DSA who, I guess, see themselves as more radical than others, want to expel or censure AOC because she supports two states in Israel-Palestine, in fact AOC is better than that element of the rank and file.

I'm also fairly sure that measuring DSA progress by the number of DSA-as-such candidates it advances in elections, as against backing DSAers and others in Democrat primaries, is off-key.

I'm also fairly sure that it is unfair to the DSA to equate it with Bernie Sanders' current proclaimed orientation, which is to reform the Democrats and push them to the left. The DSA talks about building an independent workers' party. It has no clear idea of how, but it is clear that it doesn't just want the Democrats nudged to the left.

Beyond that I don't know.

The DSA formally declaring itself a party isn't the key, either. The Labor Party of the USA founded in 1996 was always formally a party. That didn't stop it being paralysed by its affiliated unions for years countermanding anything other than LPUSA backing for left candidates in Democrat primaries; nor did that initial paralysis stop us describing it as a promising start. Eventually the LPUSA did run a few candidates under its own name, with little success, but that wasn't a breakthrough either. Progress could not be measured by numbers of formal LPUSA election candidates. What was needed was politics: a greater and more effective mass of Marxist activists within it and its affiliated unions, which would over time produce a bigger party and more and better candidacies. For lack of that, it essentially died when its founder Tony Mazzochi died, in 2002 (though on paper, I think, it still exists).

7. Lib-Dem vs Tory contests

Some of us favoured voting Biden on 3 November 2020, on the grounds that there was no working-class candidacy viable even as a propaganda candidacy. Others have retorted that this approach would leave us voting Lib-Dem to stop the Tories in constituencies in Britain where Labour is clearly running third. The answer there is that an orientation to the Labour Party and a fight within it for working-class politics requires the Labour Party to contest every seat. It evidently has the means to do that, whereas e.g. the would-be Trotskyist groups in the USA don't have the means to make even a token showing in more than a minuscule number of elections there. (After our comrade Mike Perkins moved house from Southampton to nearby New Forest, a heavily Tory constituency, he reported that it was difficult to get even lifelong Labour supporters there to vote Labour rather than Lib-Dem. Still Labour got 8% of the vote there, and then in 2017 Labour actually beat the Lib-Dems to come second in both New Forest East and New Forest West.) An extra right-wing Tory MP as a result of Labour holding votes in some constituency where the Lib-Dems are for now stronger is a lesser evil than the labour movement abandoning areas of the country as no-go for any form of working-class politics.


Submitted by Ben T on Sun, 11/04/2021 - 11:03

I don't think any of Martin's opponents in this debate have suggested that being dragged back by politicians like AOC is the "core problem" in the DSA. But it is a misrepresentation of the debates around AOC and "The Squad" (AOC, Tlaib, Omar, Pressley) to suggest it's all about one-staters wanting to censure or expel AOC for her two-states position on Israel-Palestine.

Is there a lot of that? Undoubtedly. But there are far more wide-ranging criticisms being made against AOC and the rest of the small clique of left Democrat congresspeople. For example, when she (like Corbyn and Abbot) cowered in the face of the right's accusation she wanted free movement and "open borders", and assured them that she only wanted "humane, responsible" border controls. More fundamentally, the shift that has occurred since 2018, when as a Congressperson-elect she participated in a sit-in in Nancy Pelosi's office, to today. Since then she has integrated more into the bourgeois 'way things are done around here' on the Hill and into the Democratic machine. This year, she voted for Pelosi as Speaker of the House - possibly a justifiable tactic in a FPTP internal parliamentary vote, but she accompanied this with rhetoric stressing the need for Democratic "unity" and assured the movement below her that she had been in "negotiations" with Pelosi, but declined to give any indication what these were about and what, if anything, she secured in exchange for her vote. Since then she and the rest of her caucus have been criticised for clever-clever, softly-softly, backroom parliamentary tactics around Medicare4All, refusing to use their leverage over congressional business and instead telling the movement to hold back while they grease wheels and glad-hand colleagues on the Hill. She recently donated $160k directly to centrist Democrats in various races around the country that she had raised from her left-wing supporters.

All I'm arguing is that this is not a healthy direction and that the unaccountable relationship of left politicians to the DSA risks enabling a conveyor belt whereby the assimilative forces on those politicians once they arrive in power can be transmitted down to their support base, leading the movement down a dead-end. I think we've seen indications that that is happening from the level of enthusiasm from activists in past months for trying to get Sanders into Biden's cabinet. Some more "seat at the table", "inside the tent pissing out" stuff has percolated out into the movement. It is becoming increasingly widespread among people who regard themselves as socialists, both in the US and UK, to think of the left's proper relationship to the Democratic Party, mediated via these politicians, as being analogous to the left's relationship to UK Labour.

I'm not arguing that these mean a healthy DSA would expel AOC, nor am I arguing this is the central, lone priority to deal with in the DSA - but the growing allegiance of left activists seeing themselves as an internal (and ultimately, when push comes to shove, loyal) faction of the Democratic "Party", and the DSA's one-directional relationship to the politicians it endorses, are certainly among the various issues that socialists should be highlighting and trying to change in the DSA.

I'll grant that these criticisms are often messily mixed-in with agitation against her position on Palestine - but that doesn't mean that criticism from the left of AOC and "the squad" can be reduced to that issue.

Submitted by martin on Sun, 11/04/2021 - 13:00

In reply to by Ben T

I'm not arguing that all criticism of AOC from DSA is about her support for "Two States". But Ben himself says there is "a lot of that". My argument is that "get the DSA into order politically" is the priority above "get the DSA [assumed to be pretty much in order politically, except only that it lets AOC get away with things] to call AOC to order".

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