Fascism and Trump: theory and history

Submitted by martin on 27 October, 2020 - 10:24 Author: Martin Thomas
The March on Rome

Above: The March on Rome, 1922. Mussolini (pictured in the tailcoat) had in fact travelled in comfort by train from Milan.


• See here for other articles debating the US election, Trump, etc.

In the discussion we, Workers' Liberty, had with Neil Faulkner of Mutiny on 18 October, he defined fascism as a bringing-together of all the reactionary crap of bourgeois ideology, deployed in capitalist crisis to divide the working class.

Trotsky argued for sharper distinctions between fascism and bourgeois reaction in general. Fascism, he said, is the form of bourgeois reaction which, in economic crisis and when the working class is already on the back foot, mobilises a plebeian base in the petty bourgeoisie (and lumpenproletariat) and crushes the organisations of the working class.

From that point of view, Faulkner's argument appears as a dissolving of specifics into generalities: of the populist social demagogy of fascism into reactionary bourgeois ideology in general, of the class differentiations of the 80%-90% plebeian majority into a single category as supposedly all "working-class", and of the crushing of the working class into reaction in general.

This debate is relevant to the question of Trump and fascism.

The democracy in bourgeois-democratic regimes is usually won by struggles of the working class, and is under constant pressure. All bourgeois democracies curb, to one degree or another, the bourgeois liberties (freedoms of speech, publishing, organisation, voting) which workers' organisations need to breathe. But with bourgeois democracy, those liberties still live; with fascism, they die.

Bourgeois democracy can also be suppressed "cold", from above, by a military coup, for example, without an active plebeian base. That sort of regime Marxists call Bonapartism. In highly-urbanised societies, it is generally unable to achieve the same level of control as a fascist regime which has militant supporters in every street, neighbourhood, and workplace.

Trotsky in the 1930s coined the idea of a "transitional" or "intermediate" form of Bonapartism, exemplified by the rule-by-decree in the last years of the Weimar Republic in Germany, when the bourgeoisie was unable to sustain stable parliamentary governments. Parliament and civil liberties were not abolished, but suspended; workers' organisations were harassed, but still operated. That Bonapartism administered a "temporary and at bottom unsteady equilibrium between the camps of the proletariat and of fascism".

The Stalinists said those Bonapartist regimes were already fascism. The Italian Communists (genuine Communists, not Stalinists) in the couple of years before Mussolini took power had mostly dismissed Mussolini's movement as buffoons incapable of taking power. In any case, they said, it was not fundamentally distinct from the bourgeois parties.

Not even fundamentally distinct from social democracy. In the "Bolshevisation" period of 1924-5, Zinoviev argued that social democracy and fascism were "twins". After all, social democracy in Germany had used the Freikorps against the communists.

"One must not let out of sight", commented Trotsky, "that Italian fascism was then a new phenomenon, and only in the process of formation: it wouldn't have been an easy task even for a more experienced party to distinguish its specific traits".

After the experience of Italy - where fascism had consolidated into its distinctive form by about 1926 - the distinctions should be clear.

"To insist that fascism is already here [when it is not], or to deny the very possibility of it coming to power - amounts politically to one and the same thing. By ignoring the specific nature of fascism, the will to fight against it becomes inevitably paralysed".

Trotsky also warned against schematism. In discussing fascism and Bonapartism, "we are dealing not with inflexible logical categories but with living social formations which represent extremely pronounced peculiarities in different countries and at different stages".

He gave the example of Pilsudski's regime in Poland after 1926.

"The mass of Polish fascism was much weaker than that of Italian fascism in its time and still more than that of German fascism: to a much greater degree, Pilsudski had to make use of the methods of military conspiracy… The oscillation between the classes and the national parts of the classes occupied and still occupies with Pilsudski a much greater place, and mass terror a much smaller place, than in the corresponding periods with Mussolini or Hitler…"

Pilsudski, in fact, initially came to power with the positive support of the Polish Socialist and Communist Parties and of a railworkers' strike, and never fully extinguished bourgeois liberties. The Communist Party's first assessment was that Pilsudski's regime was a "workers' and peasants' government"!

Nevertheless, warned Trotsky, it would be "false to form an image of some 'ideal' fascism… to oppose it to this real fascist regime which has grown up, with all its peculiarities and contradictions, upon the terrain of the relationship of classes and nationalities in the Polish state" and so to wait for "a new Polish Mussolini or Hitler" to arrive as the "real" fascism.

The American Trotskyists, basing themselves on discussions with Trotsky about the US fascist movements of the late 1930s (Hague, Coughlin), characterised McCarthyism in 1953-4 as "American fascism". James P Cannon and his comrades did that explicitly. They later said that they had overestimated the strength and dynamism of McCarthyism, but they didn't rescind the description as "fascist".

McCarthy had only a diffuse plebeian movement behind him, less coherent and militarised than Trump's. Cannon argued that it would be wrong to take that as proof of non-fascism. "What about violence which is technically illegal and unconstitutional, but carried out nevertheless by duly constituted officials clothed with legal authority... the intimidation and terror of the witch-hunt?" Labor Action didn't, as far as I can tell, didn't use the word "fascist", but it gave the same gist, by arguing that McCarthyism threatened to crush unions. Hal Draper predicted that McCarthyism looked like developing a "third party" to push aside both Democrats and Republicans, but not that it would be little threat until it did develop that.

In the event, McCarthy fell fast. With the easing of tensions with the USSR (Geneva conference) and increasing confidence about capitalism's unprecedented boom, Eisenhower and the Republicans summoned up the nerve to push McCarthy aside, and his own alcoholism did the rest. But in the basic idea that it was wrong to refuse to see fascism in America until it fitted the German template, both wings of Trotskyism were right.

Thomas Carolan in his article defined Trump personally as a fascist. Maybe "an “authoritarian”, maybe "a delusional psychotic would-be king of the USA", but the crisper term would do. In the next sentence he wrote: "the USA is not fascist".

No, fascism is not here already. No, it will not be here even if Trump succeeds in "stealing" the election. There are forces in the USA which will be a "formidable barrier against Trump after the election". But the barrier will be needed.

But how are things developing? Since 2016 Trump has pushed aside "the adults in the room" who at first flanked him in his administration (Mattis, McMaster, Kelly, etc.), marginalised his critics in the Republican Party, rallied an alarmingly solid plebeian base, substantially purged the state machine, and green-lighted a growing range of militarised right-wing groups. "The elements of a fascistic authoritarianism are thick in the air". With "the pandemic that has closed down and half-wrecked much of the American economy", that creates a dangerous mix.

Many comrades have rushed to assert that Trump is not fascist. No, definitely not! Maybe only someone who wants to remain in the White House, and doesn't care too much about what policies he can enforce as president as long as he stays there.

But they also say that he and the movement around him are "proto-fascist", "pre-fascist", or could "develop in a clearly fascist direction" in the months ahead. It is hard to see much difference between that and what Carolan wrote; but easy to see how the insistence on more blurred language can help sap a sense of urgency.

Trotsky, as we've seen, thought it methodologically wrong to see "fascism", "Bonapartism", etc. as in absolutely clear-cut high-walled boxes. The fluidity is greater when we discuss whether an individual, rather than a state, or a movement, is fascist.

Consider Charles De Gaulle. In 1944, as the Nazis retreated from France, he called for a government in which the president (himself) would be much more powerful than Parliament. But elections produced a Parliament dominated by the Socialist Party, the Stalinists, and Christian Democrats, all of which wanted a strong parliament. De Gaulle was president, but had to defer for the time being.

In 1946, he quit. After a period in retreat, he organised a more-or-less "classic" fascist movement, the RPF, in 1947-51. He was surely then a fascist. The RPF had some early successes, but in a France where the great capitalist boom of the 50s and 60s was starting, those soon faded. De Gaulle went into retirement again.

In 1958 he was brought back as president by a "soft" military coup. France was in full capitalist boom, and neither the bourgeoisie nor the petty bourgeoise needed or desired to dispense with democratic liberties or try to crush trade unions rather than dealing with them. But the bourgeoisie wanted a strong executive to override the parliamentary parties which had been unable to create stable government coalitions and to resolve the war in Algeria. And De Gaulle did that, in the event by granting independence and "dishing" many of the generals who had brought him to power.

De Gaulle sent parliament away for six months and wrote a new constitution to give the president powers to override parliament, which are still there and are still used. He launched a new political movement, with a street-fighting fringe and with considerable social demagogy, as his personal vehicle. He was now, in the new conditions, a "Bonapartist" if you like.

Trump is operating in conditions of acute social and economic disarray.

The elaborate "separation of powers" in the US constitution is a barrier against authoritarianism to some extent. In another way its obviously ramshackle character makes the dangers greater.

It is almost impossible for any one of president, House of Reps, or Senate, to do anything much through regular channels without the agreement of the other two. So government action in the USA often require short-cutting those regular channels - by decisions of the Supreme Court (the only "top" institution that can regularly act without needing the consent of others) or by presidential decrees.

There are 35 states of emergency currently in force in the USA, seven declared by Trump, others inherited. Trump has issued 193 executive orders since 2017. G W Bush, Clinton, and Obama also made many executive orders, though not at the same rate. The possibilities for making those short-cuts even more numerous and weighty remain to be tested.

A dominant bourgeois faction feeling that crises call for rapid and decisive action will know that it can usually achieve that only by a big tilt towards greater executive power.

Mussolini came to power in Italy not because his "blackshirts" were an overwhelming force. They were not. The "March on Rome" was only about 30,000 people, and would have been dispersed easily if the request from the prime minister, Luigi Facta, for army action against it had been accepted by the king.

The Italian working-class movement was on the back foot after the defeat (not crushing defeat, but defeat) of its great wave of factory occupations in 1920. Politically, all its different factions were unclear about the fascists. There was no effective working-class resistance to the "March on Rome".

The king was not a fascist, but (like most of the big bourgeoisie, by then) he was dismayed by his rapidly-changing, unstable, reluctant, and unconfident parliamentary governments. So he stalled. Facta confirmed the king's dismay by limply resigning, and the king made Mussolini prime minister.

Enough of the bourgeoisie had been persuaded that, whatever Mussolini's buffoonery, he wouldn't interfere too much with their profits, he would be reasonably prudent about foreign military adventures, and he would keep at least as much order as the floundering liberal governments. The leading liberal politicians went along with Mussolini, telling themselves he could be controlled because the fascists only had a minority in the government, or retired from the scene. The army commanders shrugged and went along with Mussolini too. And then Mussolini was able to do what he wanted for years without even changing the constitution.

Trump is a blusterer. He may lack the ability and strength of purpose to push what he wants. I hope so. But it doesn't depend only on him. It depends on the strength of the resistance.

One of the lessons that does copy over from Europe in the 1920s and 30s is that it is foolish to rely on the ostensibly democratic bourgeois establishment to take the weight of that resistance, to assure ourselves that the structures of bourgeois democracy in the USA will control Trump so that we can afford to prioritise the protest-vote value of a candidacy actually aimed to sustain Green Party ballot-line access.

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