The re-emergence of the white nationalist right, like a nightmare vomited up from the depths, is enough to make one reach for Marx’s observation that history happens twice – first as tragedy, then as farce. Wearing white polos and khakis – a farce of a uniform if you think about it even briefly – they gathered in Charlottesville to defend a statue of Robert E. Lee, military leader of the South’s chattel slave-owning class. It is no wonder that Karl Marx wrote extensively on the American Civil War and sent a letter of congratulations to Abraham Lincoln upon his re-election in 1864. Marx understood the Southern planters as reactionaries and a threat that had to be crushed – so much so that he saw the Northern capitalist class as a progressive force in the struggle. A century later Barrington Moore, Jr. wrote in his classic Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy that the American Civil War was the last bourgeois revolution: the smashing of the planter aristocracy and freeing of the slaves prevented the seeds of fascism from germinating at a national level even as Jim Crow repression ravaged the South.
Neo-fascism has arisen at the same time as class struggle politics slowly returns to the European and North American left. Suddenly we can once again imagine vastly different futures, some far better and many terribly worse than the present. History is back and we are no longer going to be allowed to stumble into a technocratic neoliberal order ruled by the free market and its increasing acceptance of varied identities, genders, races, etc. as long as we are all, ultimately, consumers of its products. This has created much consternation on the part of a political and professional caste unused to large-scale criticism and unsure of the rules in an era of systemic decay. The future may be, as Rosa Luxemburg once posited, Socialism or Barbarism, but we are a long way from either. For now there is not much besides the slow-motion collapse of the old order.
There are at least two questions that spin out of this: how can the neo-fascists best be defeated, and what role should those of us committed to Socialism play that can propel us to one of the better futures? This is not a small matter, for though there are as yet only tiny numbers of open neo-fascists willing to march with torches to defend monuments to slavery, there are certainly far more who will vote for candidates like Trump and Marine Le Pen who express those views in more coded language. Socialism as an organized force is laughably minuscule compared to the numbers of sympathizers with far-right politics.
One method is, of course, to meet the marches of white nationalists with counter-demonstrations. This happened in Charlottesville with a united crowd of marchers, some like Antifa willing to defend against neo-fascist provocations with force, and many others there to protest with their bodies, signs, and voices. It is clear that these are intensely important acts, but neo-fascists are not scared of violence and protest-as-violence is part of the fascist credo. Also, while this deals with an immediate problem, how can it deal with the structural forces that cause racism, nationalism, and fascism? Frankly, it cannot. Confusing the removal of monuments with defeating endemic socio-economic relations that underpin white supremacy is an all-too-likely outcome if the only way we engage neo-fascism is counter-demonstrations and statue disposal.
Another tactic is the development of a class politics that addresses the socio-economic issues that are, in the last instance, at the root of the white nationalism’s reemergence (and of course of the revival of socialist ideas as well). This is the beginning of an more extended answer: authoritarian right-wing movements thrive in areas with high unemployment, perceived pressures from immigration, ethnic/racial conflict, lack of social services, and poor educational opportunities. Much of the United States fits this profile too closely for comfort. A real program that afforded socialized universal health care for all, a right to employment at living wages, a guaranteed income, a massive investment in public and cooperatively controlled local jobs and businesses, renewable energy, a right to housing, labor rights – all these things would have the potential to cut off at the knees the potential base of a reactionary right.
Yet what organization will deliver this program? The Democratic Party, stuffed to the brim with a professional managerial class that long ago ditched its working class allies in order to grab at more Wall Street cash? My own group, the Green Party, adopted a socialist plank into its platform last year, but has been stymied – as have so many others -by draconian election laws and the realities of campaign finance in the United States, as well as pure vindictiveness from Democrats and Republicans over the years. Classic social democracy was a bargain between a portion of the working class and capitalists: in exchange for labor peace so big industry could reap profits, redistribution of wealth through social programs aided a large swath of the population. What segment of the elite need labor peace now? New Deal programs were also designed to benefit white, usually male, workers and to specifically exclude African-Americans, migrant workers, immigrants, and many women. Any class program would immediately confront both the need for a more radical track and the need to address race and gender issues (amongst others) as well.
The answer, I think, is that a subculture must be consciously constructed to convey to the masses of working people an anti-fascist, class politics that understands capitalism as the ultimate enemy. Education, media, and social groups: these were at the core of the political, socialist, left of a century ago alongside the parties. It is difficult to build a party that has a radically different idea of what a better future should be without a base that understands and breathes those ideas. To do this means to confront the systemic racism that emboldens neo-fascists and their allies that is bolstered by centuries of policy enacted by Republicans and Democrats. It means to demand a full accounting why statues are allowed to come down and members of Trump’s business council are praised for resigning while doing nothing to change the brutal economic policies that perpetuate unemployment, poverty, poor housing, and lack of health care. Perhaps – I hope – it also means confronting a foreign policy that funds and arms right-wing reactionaries as long as they coincide with U.S. government interests.
I know that this is all necessary; I don’t know if any of this is possible. There are enormous impediments to all of this, most importantly who will do it? I think a party – or parties – could arise while doing this work, but can the enormous organizing effort required be done before we end up in one of the worse futures (I hesitate to call it a dystopia because dystopias are always just over the horizon, never here)? I’m not sure – but it seems to be clear that those of us who want a better future – socialist even! – need to reflect on how to get from here to there, and why our current strategy (whatever there is of one) may not be the best one to get us to that point. Building the subculture we need alongside the parties we want is the only way to confront the rise of the Neo-Fascists and to answer – with class – the question: Socialism or Barbarism?