File spoon-archives/marxism-international.archive/marxism-international_1997/marxism-international.9710, message 203


Date: Sat, 11 Oct 1997 10:09:10 -0400
Subject: M-I: American fascism?


The United States in the 1930s became a battleground between industrial
workers and the capitalist class over whether workers would be able to form
industrial unions. There had been craft unions for decades, but only
industrial unions could fight for all of the workers in a given plant or
industry. This fight had powerful revolutionary implications since the
captains of heavy industry required a poorly paid, docile work-force in
order to maximize profits in the shattered capitalist economy. There were
demonstrations, sit-down strikes and even gun-fights led by the Communist
Party and other left groups to establish this basic democratic right.

Within this political context, fascist groups began to emerge. They drew
their inspiration from Mussolini's fascists or Hitler's brown-shirts. In a
time of severe social crisis, groups of petty-bourgeois and lumpen elements
begin to coalesce around demagogic leaders. They employ "radical" sounding
rhetoric but in practice seek out working-class organizations to intimidate
and destroy. One such fascist group was the Silver Shirts of Minneapolis,
Minnesota.

In chapter eleven of "Teamster Politics", SWP leader Farrell Dobbs recounts
"How the Silver Shirts Lost Their Shrine in Minneapolis". It is the story
of how Local 544 of the Teamsters union, led by Trotskyists, defended
itself successfully from a fascist expedition into the city. Elements of
the Twin Cities ruling-class, alarmed over the growth of industrial
unionism in the city, called in Silver Shirt organizer Roy Zachary. Zachary
hosted two closed door meetings on July 29 and August 2 of 1938. Teamster
"moles" discovered that Zachary intended to launch a vigilante attack
against Local 544 headquarters. They also discovered that Zachary planned
to work with one F.L. Taylor to set up an "Associated Council of
Independent Unions", a union-busting operation. Taylor had ties to a
vigilante outfit called the "Minnesota Minute Men".

Local 544 took serious measures to defend itself. It formed a union defense
guard in August 1938 open to any active union member. Many of the people
who joined had military experience, including Ray Rainbolt the elected
commander of the guard. Rank-and-filers were former sharpshooters, machine
gunners and tank operators in the US Army. The guard also included one
former German officer with WWI experience. While the guard itself did not
purchase arms except for target practice, nearly every member had hunting
rifles at home that they could use in the circumstance of a Silver Shirt
attack.

Events reached a climax when Pelley came to speak at a rally in the wealthy
section of Minneapolis.

Ray Rainbolt organized a large contingent of defense guard members to pay a
visit to Calhoun Hall where Pelley was to make his appearance. The powerful
sight of disciplined but determined unionists  persuaded the audience to go
home and Pelley to cancel his speech.

This was the type of conflict taking place in 1938. A capitalist class bent
on taming workers;  fascist groups with a documented violent, anti-labor
record; industrial workers in motion: these were the primary actors in that
period. It was characteristic of the type of class conflict that
characterized the entire 1930s. It is useful to keep this in mind when we
speak about McCarthyism.

WWII abolished a number of major contradictions in global capital while
introducing others. The United States emerged as the world's leading
capitalist power and took control economically and politically of many of
the former colonies of the exhausted European powers. Inter-imperialist
rivalries and contradictions seemed to be a thing of the past. England was
the U.S.'s junior partner. The defeated Axis powers,  Germany and Japan,
were under Washington's thumb. France retained some independence. (To this
day France continues to act as if it were an equal partner of the US,
detonating nuclear weapons in the Pacific or talking back to NATO over
policies in Bosnia.)

Meanwhile the USSR survived the war bloodied but unbowed. In a series of
negotiations with the US and its allies, Stalin won the right to create
"buffer" states to his West. A whole number of socialist countries then
came into being. China and Yugoslavia had deep-going proletarian
revolutions that, joined with the buffer states, would soon account for
more than 1/4 of the world's population.

World imperialism took an aggressive stance toward the socialist bloc
before the smoke had cleared from the WWII battlegrounds. Churchill made
his "cold war" speech and contradictions between the socialist states and
world capitalism grew very sharp. Imperialism began using the same type of
rhetoric and propaganda against the USSR that it had used against the
Nazis. Newreels of the early fifties would depict a spreading red blot
across the European continent. This time the symbol superimposed on the
blot was a hammer-and-sickle instead of a swastika. The idea was the same:
to line up the American people against the enemy overseas that was trying
to gobble up the "free world".

A witch-hunt in the United States, sometimes called McCarthyism, emerged in
the United States from nearly the very moment the cold war started. The
witch-hunt would serve to eradicate domestic opposition to the
anti-Communist crusade overseas. The witch-hunters wanted to root up and
eradicate all sympathy to the USSR. President Harry Truman, a Democrat and
New Dealer, started the anticommunist crusade. He introduced the first
witch-hunt legislation, a bill that prevented federal employees from
belonging to "subversive" organizations. When Republican Dwight Eisenhower
took office, he simply kept the witch-hunt going. The McCarthy movement per
se emerges out of a reactionary climate created by successive White House
administrations, Democrat and Republican alike.

I will argue that a similar dynamic has existed in US politics over the
past twenty years. Instead of having a "cold war" against the socialist
countries, we have had a "cold war" on the working-class and its allies.
James Carter, a Democrat, set into motion the attack on working people and
minorities, while successive Republican and Democratic administrations have
continued to stoke the fire. Reaganism is Carterism raised to a higher
level. All Buchanan represents is the emergence of a particularly
reactionary tendency within this overall tendency toward the right.

Attacks on the working-class and minorities have nothing to do with "bad
faith" on the part of people like William Clinton. We are dealing with a
global restructuring of capital that will be as deep-going in its impact on
class relations internationally as the cold war was in its time. The cold
war facilitated the removal of the Soviet Union as a rival. Analogously,
the class war on working people in the advanced capitalist countries that
began in the Carter years facilitates capital's next new expansion.
Capitalism is a dynamic system. This dynamism includes not only war and
"downsizing", it also includes fabulous growth in places like the East
Coast of China. To not see this is to not understand capitalism.

Even the recent UPS strike has to be understood in the context of an upturn
in the business cycle. One of the elements of the Teamster victory was the
low unemployment levels in areas where UPS warehouses were located,
especially in the mid-west. This meant that striking workers could find
temporary work without much trouble and withstand a long strike. The UPS
bosses also would find it more difficult to find scabs, since the reserve
army of the unemployed was at low ebb. This is elementary to any Marxist.
For somebody with pretenses to Marxism, like Rodwell, it is a mystery.

The following appears in an article in the April 5, 1954 Militant titled
"First Principles in the Struggle Against Fascism." 

"The United States, the most powerful capitalist country in history, is a
component part of the world capitalist system and is subject to the same
general laws. It suffers from the same incurable diseases and is destined
to share the same fate. The overwhelming preponderance of American
imperialism does not exempt it from the decay of world capitalism, but, on
the contrary, acts to involve it even more deeply, inextricably and
hopelessly. US capitalism can no more escape from the revolutionary
consequences of world capitalist decay than the older European capitalist
powers. The blind alley in which world capitalism has arrived, and the US
with it, excludes a new organic era of capitalist stabilization. The
dominant world position of American imperialism now accentuates and
aggravates the death agony of capitalism as a whole."

It is of course based on a totally inaccurate misunderstanding of the state
of global capital. Capitalism was not in a "blind alley" in 1954. The truth
is that from approximately 1946 on capitalism went through the most
sustained expansion in its entire history. To have spoken about the "death
agony" of capitalism in 1954 was utter nonsense. This "catastrophism" could
only serve to misorient the left since it did not put McCarthyism in proper
context.

One of the great contributions made by Nicos Poulantzas in his "Fascism and
the Third International" was his diagnosis of the problem of
"catastrophism". According to Poulantzas, the belief that capitalism has
reached a "blind alley" first appeared in the Comintern of the early
1920's. He blames this on a dogmatic approach to Lenin's "Imperialism, The
Highest Stage of Capitalism" that existed in a communist movement that was
all too eager to deify the dead revolutionist.

Lenin's theory of imperialism owed much to Hilferding and Bukharin who
believed that capitalism was moribund and incapable of generating new
technical and industrial growth. Moreover, this capitalist system was in a
perpetual crisis and wars were inevitable. The Comintern latched onto this
interpretation and adapted it to the phenomenon of fascism. Fascism, in
addition to war, was also a permanent feature of the decaying capitalist
system. A system that had reached such an impasse was a system that was in
a permanent catastrophic mode. The Comintern said that it was five minutes
to midnight.

The SWP's version of catastrophism did not allow it to see McCarthy's true
mission. This mission was not to destroy the unions and turn the United
States into a totalitarian state. It was rather a mission to eliminate
radical dissent against the stepped-up attack on the USSR, its allies and
revolutionary movements in the third world. The witch-hunt targeted
radicals in the unions, the schools, the State Department, the media and
elsewhere. After the witch-hunt had eradicated all traces of radical
opinion, the US military could fight its imperialist wars without
interference from the left. This is exactly what took place during the
Korean War. There were no visible signs of dissent except in the socialist
press and in some liberal publications like I.F. Stone's Newsletter. This
clamp-down on dissent lasted until the Vietnam war when a newly developing
radicalization turned the witch-hunt back for good.

In the view of the SWP, nothing basically had changed since the 1930's. The
target of McCarthyite "fascism" was the working-class and its unions. The
Militant stated on January 18, 1954:

"If the workers' organizations don't have the answer, the fascists will
utilize the rising discontent of the middle class, its disgust with the
blundering labor leadership, and its frenzy at being ruined economically,
to build a mass fascist movement with armed detachments and hurl them at
the unions. While spouting a lot of radical-sounding demagogy they will
deflect the anti-capitalist wrath of the middle class and deploy it against
labor, and establish the iron-heel dictatorship of Big Capital on the
smoking ruins of union halls."

One wonders if the party leadership in 1954 actually knew any middle-class
people, since party life consisted of a "faux proletarian" subculture with
tenuous ties to American society. Certainly they could have found out about
the middle-class on the newly emerging TV situation comedies like "Father
Knows Best" or "Leave it to Beaver". Rather than expressing "rising
discontent" or "frenzy", the middle-class was taking advantage of dramatic
increases in personal wealth. Rather than plotting attacks on union halls
like the Silver Shirts did in 1938, they were moving to suburbia, buying
televisions and station wagons, and taking vacations in Miami Beach or
Europe. This was not only objectively possible for the average middle-class
family, it was also becoming possible for the worker in basic industry. For
the very same reason the working-class was not gravitating toward
socialism, the middle-class was not gravitating toward fascism. This
reason, of course, is that prosperity had become general.

European Trotskyism was generally much less dogmatic than its American and
English cousins. While the party leadership in the United States hated the
European Trotskyist leader Pablo with a passion, rank and filers often
found themselves being seduced by some ideas put forward by the Europeans.

One of these differences revolved around how to assess McCarthy. The party
leadership viewed McCarthy as a fascist while a minority grouping led by
Dennis Vern and Samuel Ryan based in Los Angeles challenged this view.

Vern and Ryan criticize the Militant's narrow focus on the McCarthyite
threat. They say, "The net effect of this campaign is not to hurt McCarthy,
or the bourgeois state, but to excuse the bourgeois state for the
indisputable evidences of its bourgeois character, and thus hinder the
proletariat in its understanding that the bourgeois-democratic state is an
'executive committee' of the capitalist class, and that only a workers
state can offer an appropriate objective for the class struggle."

I tend to discount statements like "only a workers state" since they
function more as a mantra than anything else ("only socialism can end
racism"; "only socialism can end sexism"-- you get the picture.) However,
there is something interesting being said here. By singling out McCarthy,
didn't the SWP "personalize" the problems the left was facing? A Democratic
president initiated the witch-hunt, not a fascist minded politician. Both
capitalist parties created the reactionary movement out of which McCarthy
emerges. By the same token, doesn't the narrow focus on Buchanan today tend
to lift some of the pressure on William Clinton. After all, if our problem
is Buchanan, then perhaps it makes sense to throw all of our weight behind
Clinton.

Vern and Ryan also offer the interesting observation that McCarthy has been
less anti-union than many bourgeois politicians to his left. The liberal
politicians railed against McCarthy's assault on civil liberties, but
meanwhile endorsed all sorts of measures that would have weakened the power
of the American trade union movement.

This was an interesting perception that has some implications I will
attempt to elucidate. McCarthy did not target the labor movement as such
because the post WWII social contract between labor and big business was
essentially class-collaborationist. The union movement would keep its mouth
shut about foreign interventions in exchange for higher wages, job
security, etc. Social peace at home accompanied and eased the way of  US
capitalist expansionism overseas. The only obstacle to this social contract
was the ideological left, those members of the union movement, the media,
etc. They were all possible supporters of the Vietminh and other liberation
movements. McCarthy wanted to purge the union movement of these elements,
but not destroy the union movement itself. Turning our clock forward to
1996, did anybody think that Buchanan intends to break the power of the US
working-class? Did big business need Buchanan when the Arkansas labor-hater
had been doing such a great job? 

The SWP has had a tremendous attraction toward "catastrophism." In 1988, we
discover resident genius Jack Barnes telling a gathering of the faithful
that capitalism finally is in the eleventh hour. In a speech on "What the
1987 Stock Market Crash Foretold", he says:

"Neither past sources of rapid capital accumulation nor other options can
enable the imperialist ruling classes to restore the long-term accelerating
accumulation of world capitalism and avert an international depression and
general social crisis....

"The period in the history of capitalist development that we are living
through today is heading toward intensified class battles on a national and
international scale, including wars and revolutionary situations. In order
to squeeze out more wealth from the labor of exploited producers....

"Before the exploiters can unleash a victorious reign of reaction [i.e.,
fascism], however, the workers will have the first chance. The mightiest
class battles of human history will provide the workers and exploited
farmers in the United States and many other countries the opportunity to
place revolutionary situations on the order of the day."

Someone should have thrown a glass of cold water in the face of this guru
before he made this speech. He predicted depression, but the financial
markets ignored him. The stock market recovered from the 1987 crash and
shot up to over 5000 points. His statement that nothing could have averted
an international depression shows that he much better qualified at plotting
purges than plotting out the development of capital accumulation.

His statement that the "period in the history of capitalist development
that we are living through" is heading toward wars and revolution takes the
word "period" and strips it of all meaning. Nine years have passed and
there is neither depression nor general social crisis. Is a decade
sufficient to define a period?  I think all of us can benefit from Jack
Barnes' catastrophism if we simply redefine what a period is. Let us define
it as a hundred years, then predictions of  our Nostradamus might begin to
make sense. Unfortunately, the art of politics consists of knowing what to
do next and predictions of such a sweeping nature are worthless.

The SWP newspaper thought Buchanan was a Hitler waiting in the wings:

"Buchanan is not primarily out to win votes, nor was he four years ago. He
has set out to build a cadre of those committed to his program and willing
to act in the streets to carry it out. He dubs his supporters the 'Buchanan
Brigades'....

"Commenting on the tone of a recent speech Buchanan gave to the New
Hampshire legislature, Republican state representative Julie Brown, said,
'It's just mean - like a little Mussolini.'....

"While he is not about to get the Republican nomination, Buchanan is
serious in his campaign. The week before his Louisiana win, he came in
first in a straw poll of Alaska Republicans and placed third in polls in
New Hampshire, where the first primary election will be held. He is
building a base regardless of how the vote totals continue to fall. And he
poses the only real alternative that can be put forward within the
capitalist system to the like-sounding Clinton and Dole - a fascist
alternative."

These quotations tend to speak for a rather wide-spread analysis of
Buchanan that a majority of the left supported, including many Spoons list
people.

I want to offer a counter-analysis:

1) We are in a period of quiescence, not class confrontation:

This is the good news and the bad news. It is good news because there is no
threat of a fascist movement coming to power. It is bad news because it
reflects how depoliticized the US working-class remains.

There is no fascist movement in the United States of any size or
significance. It is time to stop talking about the militias of Montana. Let
us speak instead of New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco, etc. Has
there been any growth of fascism? Of course not. In New York, my home town,
there is no equivalent of the German-American bund, the fascists of the
1930s who had a base on New York's upper east side, my neighborhood.

There are no attacks on socialist or trade union meetings. There are not
even attacks on movements of allies of the working-class. The women's
movement, the black movement, the Central American movement organize
peacefully and without interference for the simple reason that there are no
violent gangs to subdue them.

The reason there are no violent gangs of fascists is the same as it was in
the 1950s. We are not in a period of general social crisis. There are no
frenzied elements of the petty-bourgeoisie or the lumpen proletariat being
drawn into motion by demagogic and charismatic leaders like Mussolini or
Hitler. There are no Silver Shirts that the labor or socialist movement
needs protection from.

There is another key difference from the 1930s that we must consider.
Capital and labor battled over the rights of labor within the prevailing
factory system. Capitalism has transformed that factory system. Workers who
remain in basic industry are not fighting for union representation. They
simply want to keep their jobs. Those who remain employed will not tend to
enter into confrontations with capital as long as wages and benefits retain
a modicum of acceptability. That is the main reason industrial workers tend
to be quiescent and will remain so for some time to come.

In the 1930s, workers occupied huge factories and battled the bosses over
the right to a union. The bosses wanted to keep these factories open and
strikes tended to take on a militant character in these showdowns. Strike
actions tended to draw the working-class together and make it easier for
socialists to get a hearing. This was because strikes were much more like
mass actions and gave workers a sense of their power. The logical next
step, according to the socialists, was trade union activity on a political
level and, ultimately, rule by the workers themselves.

The brunt of the attack today has been downsizing and runaway capital. This
means that working people have a fear of being unemployed more than
anything else. This fear grips the nation. When a worker loses a job today,
he or she tends to look for personal solutions: a move to another city,
signing up for computer programming classes, etc. Michael Moore's "Roger
and Me" vividly illustrated this type of personal approach Every unemployed
auto worker in this film was trying to figure out a way to solve their
problems on their own.

In the face of the atomization of the US working class, it is no surprise
that many workers seem to vote for Buchanan. He offers them a variant on
the personal solution. A worker may say to himself or herself, "Ah, this
Buchanan's a racist bigot, but he's the only one who seems to care about
what's happening to me. I'll take a gamble and give him my vote." Voting is
not politics. It is the opposite of politics. It is the capitalist system's
mechanism for preventing political action.

2) Buchanan was a bourgeois politician:

Pat Buchanan represents the thinking of an element of the US ruling class,
and views the problems of the United States from within that perspective.
Buchanan's nationalism relates very closely to the nationalism of Ross
Perot, another ruling class politician.

A consensus exists among the ruling class that US capital must take a
global route. The capitalist state must eliminate trade barriers and
capital must flow to where there is greatest possibility for profit.
Buchanan articulates the resentments of a section of the bourgeoisie that
wants to resist this consensus. It would be an interesting project to
discover where Buchanan gets his money. This would be a more useful of
one's time than comparing his speeches to Father Coughlin or Benito
Mussolini's.

There are no parties in the United States in the European sense. In Europe,
where there is a parliamentary system, people speak for clearly defined
programs and are responsible to clearly defined constituencies. In the
United States, politics revolves around "winner take all" campaigns. This
tends to put a spotlight on presidential elections and magnify the
statements of candidates all out of proportion.

Today we have minute textual analysis of what Buchanan is saying. His words
take on a heightened, almost ultra-real quality. Since he is in a horse
race, the press tends to worry over each and every inflammatory statement
he makes. This tends to give his campaign a more threatening quality than
is supported by the current state of class relations in the United States.

3) The way to fight someone like Buchanan is by developing a class
alternative:

The left needs a candidate who is as effective as Buchanan in drawing class
lines. 

The left has not been able to present an alternative to Buchanan. It has
been making the same kinds of mistakes that hampered the German left in the
1920s: ultraleft sectarianism and opportunism. Our "Marxist-Leninist"
groups, all 119 of them, offer themselves individually as the answer to Pat
Buchanan. Meanwhile, social democrats and left-liberals at the Nation
magazine and elsewhere are preparing all the reasons one can think of to
vote for the "lesser evil".

What the left needs to do is coalesce around a class-based, militant
program. The left has not yet written this program, despite many assurances
to the contrary we can hear on this list every day. It will have to be in
the language of the American people, not in Marxist-Leninist jargon. Some
people know how speak effectively to working people. I include Michael
Moore the film-maker. I also include people like our own Doug Henwood, and
Alex Cockburn and his co-editor Ken Silverstein who put out a newsletter
called "Counterpunch".

Most of all, the model we need is like Eugene V. Debs and the Socialist
Party of the turn of the century, minus the right-wing. Or, another
possible model is the Popular Front of the CP without the orientation to
FDR. Study the speeches of Debs or listen to the songs of Woody Guthrie and
you get an idea of the kind of language we need to speak. Our mission today
remains the same as it was in turn of the century Russia: to build a
socialist party where none exists.

Louis Proyect



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