July 26, 2023
“Names in politics serve in order to differentiate and not in order to throw everything into the same heap.”
A journalist recently solicited AOC’s opinion of the Cornel West candidacy. While praising his “incredibly important” voice, she cautioned that, in supporting Dr. West, “the cost could be fascism” and “that’s no joke.” AOC is not the first and no doubt won’t be the last Democratic Party official to invoke the specter of Trumpian fascism in order to discourage a third-party challenge. To be sure, it’s not as if the Democratic Party was receptive to a third-party challenger on the Left—be it a Jill Stein or a Ralph Nader—even before it discovered a looming fascist takeover. The problem, however, is not just inconsistency; it’s ignorance. Fascism in political discourse has been reduced to an expectorating epithet. In my day, whomever you disagreed with was a “fascist pig.” Now, it’s wielded as a political cudgel, a juvenile scare tactic, to browbeat wavering Democrats into supporting President Biden. Once upon a time, however, fascism was not a term of abuse—although the terrifying danger it represented was clearly apprehended—but, on the contrary, a subtle analytical concept that denoted a specific political conjuncture and, concomitantly, prescribed a concrete political strategy for fighting it.
Leon Trotsky was among the first figures on the Left to sound the alarm about the rise of fascism in Germany: “Denying this threat, belittling it, failing to take it seriously, is the greatest crime that can be committed today” (1930). He correctly forecast that, once in power, the Nazis would launch an all-out assault on the working class and democratic institutions, as well as on the cultural acquisitions of civilization of which the working class was the rightful heir; that it would plunge Europe into a new world conflagration; and that—here his prescience was yet more impressive—Hitler’s rule, for all its destructiveness, would be short-lived. The broad socioeconomic context of the rise of fascism was the capitalist system at an impasse as it was no longer able to meet the basic needs of the masses of people. This systemic breakdown intensified the class struggle as the capitalist class relentlessly squeezed out profits while the working class resisted to the point of potentially throwing the whole system in jeopardy. Incarnating delirious ecstasy born of “national despair,” a movement of the disaffected middle classes (but also a portion of the proletariat and lumpenproletariat) thence emerged, the leadership of which vilified the organized Left that was held culpable (alongside, but only as a secondary factor, Jews) for Germany’s prostration. Of this movement’s diseased innards, Trotsky wrote:
Fascism has opened up the depths of society for politics…. What inexhaustible reserves they possess of darkness, ignorance, and savagery! Despair has raised them to their feet, fascism has given them a banner. Everything that should have been eliminated from the national organism in the form of cultural excrement in the course of the normal development of society has now come gushing out from the throat; capitalist society is puking up the undigested barbarism. Such is the physiology of National Socialism
And of the Fuhrer’s unique appeal to this “human dust” and “human rubbish,” Trotsky had this to say:
There were in the country plenty of ruined and drowning people with scars and fresh bruises. They all wanted to thump with their fists on the table. This Hitler could do better than others. True, he knew not how to cure the evil. But his harangues resounded, now like commands and now like prayers addressed to inexorable fate. Doomed classes, like those fatally ill, never tire of making variations on their plaints nor of listening to consolations. Hitler’s speeches were all attuned to this pitch. Sentimental formlessness, absence of disciplined thought, ignorance along with gaudy erudition—all these minuses turned into pluses. They supplied him with the possibility of uniting all types of dissatisfaction in the beggar’s bowl of National Socialism.
Although the Nazi party presented itself as antiestablishment, and although the German elite recoiled at, but also feared, its uncouth manners and methods, Hitler had no intention of overthrowing the capitalist system. Far from it, he was the necessary agent to stabilize capitalism by smashing organized worker resistance. In the face of this impending catastrophe, Trotsky, unavailingly, exhorted the reformist Social-Democratic party and Communist party to join together in a united front—without, however, either party being bound to sacrifice the right to forthrightly criticize the other—as, at any rate in the immediate term, their common interests in preserving the institutional gains of the working class superseded the differences, intractable as they were, dividing them:
The Communist party must call for the defense of those material ad moral positions which the working class has managed to win in the German state. This most directly concerns the fate of the workers’ political organizations, trade unions, newspapers, print plants, clubs, libraries, etc. Communist workers must say to their Social-Democratic counterparts: “The policies of our parties are irreconcilably opposed; but if the fascists come tonight to wreck your organization’s hall, we will come running, arms in hand, to help you. Will you promise us that if our organization is threatened, you will rush to our aid?” This is the quintessence of our policy in the present period.
If the Nazis ultimately managed to take power, it was because the working class did not rise to the occasion by exploiting the opportunities that opened up to itself seize power. The ensuing disorientation and demoralization of the workers created a political void that Hitler quickly filled, after which many a worker either passed into the ranks of the Nazi party as a survival precaution or faded off into anomic passivity.
What lessons (if any) can be gleaned from Trotsky’s analysis of fascism? The capitalist system—at any rate, in its historic core—is currently passing through a malaise not unlike Europe during the interwar years, although not at its nadir following the 1929 stock market crash. The capitalist class has been mercilessly sucking out profits—the regulations imposed on it from the New Deal forward have been eviscerated—while the working class, facing a precarious present and futureless future, is in a volatile state. But the political context, for now, is radically different. The have-nots are evenly distributed between the parties of the corporate duopoly. There aren’t any parties representing the working class; indeed, there are barely trade unions. From the vantage point of the ruling elite, the working class is safely ensconced in the parties it controls. A fascist takeover would therefore be redundant: the sad reality is, there’s nothing to smash. Were Donald Trump to be reelected, his rule would probably be a variant of the rightwing authoritarianism that is cropping up everywhere in the industrialized (and non-industrialized) world. However malevolent his impulses, Trump’s room for maneuver would nonetheless be hamstrung and hemmed in by the institutions of bourgeois democracy, which the capitalist elite is not ready to totally scrap so as to hand over power to so erratic a figure. It’s not a rosy prospect, and surely not grounds for complacency, but it’s also not fascism. Trump’s antics on January 6 resemble, not the Nazi takeover in 1933 but, rather, Hitler’s slightly comical Beer Hall putsch in 1923, when he and his half-baked ragtag platoon of riff-raff attempted to seize power. Still (it might be said), this aborted putsch did, after all, prefigure the Nazi takeover a decade later. There’s obviously a truth in this. If, and it can’t be ruled out, the capitalist system does go into free-fall as per a century ago, then all bets are off. In one iteration, a robust fascist movement gains traction. (The Nazis only first gathered steam after the crash.) Simultaneously, a militant working class insurgency, which the Bernie Sanders campaign foreshadowed (albeit in pale hues), springs to life. Taking fright, the capitalist class in turn hands over the reins of power to a Trump-like figure, who incites the despondent, desperate population into “white heat” in public harangues of “sentimental formlessness, absence of disciplined thought.” In this event, an existential crisis—the “puking up” of “undigested barbarism”—would indubitably befall us all. Should this eventuality come to pass, however, the Democratic Party would scarcely be a reliable redoubt in the face of such a savage onslaught. Au contraire! “There can be no doubt,” Trotsky observed, that the leaders of a capitalist party touting itself as progressive would “prefer the triumph of fascism” to radical structural change, for they “fear” such change “more than they do the fascists.” Indeed, is there any doubt that, if Bernie Sanders had won the Democratic primary, the Democratic Party elite would have colluded and conspired with the Republican Party, even as Trump was the Republican standard-bearer, to stop Bernie?
Still, even if the cries of fascism by Democratic Party officials are, for the moment, overblown, maybe they truly believe the danger is imminent. That, however, is most improbable. Why would they then nominate a candidate barely fit enough to get up each morning? Why wouldn’t they be augmenting civil-society institutions such as trade unions to withstand the fascist shock troops? Why wouldn’t they be urgently enacting legislation like Medicare for All, abolishing student debt, and doubling the minimum wage, so as to lure the downtrodden and disaffected away from the siren-songs of fascism? The obvious riposte is, the Republican Party has blocked such initiatives. That’s also an obvious pretext. The New York Times recently ran a story enumerating the multitude of reactionary initiatives a Trump administration would undertake to consolidate executive power should he be reelected (“Trump and Allies Forge Plans to Increase Presidential Powers in 2025,” 17 July 2023). But all of the said initiatives are perfectly legal. If we truly face an emergency situation, why hasn’t the Democratic Party mined the veins of executive power to advance its own agenda? The inescapable answer is, because it doesn’t really fear that fascism constitutes a clear and present danger, so it’s not about to placate the working class at the price of capitalist profits. Party hacks hurl the fascist epithet as a scarecrow to retain power. Just cry fascist—and then it’s off to the manicure, pedicure, and next GQ photoshoot. Fascism is not a joke, but the likes of AOC most certainly are.
The appalling truth is, the Democratic Party is itself paving the road to fascism not just by inaction but also by its actions. Presidential candidate Cornel West has synthesized a pair of formulae that shrewdly capture the cul-de-sac of our political moment: the choice between Trump’s “gangster” politics, on the one hand, and Biden’s “milquetoast neoliberalism” that is a way-station to Trumpian gangsterism, on the other; the choice between Trump fomenting domestic civil war, on the one hand, and Biden fomenting global nuclear war, on the other. It has already been established that the Democratic Party has done nothing to forestall an incipient fascist threat. But even worse, the Party has itself planted the seeds of a civil war. It has contrived a concatenation of legal investigations, the manifest purpose of which are to preempt Trump’s presidential bid. He is accused of having lied about his illegal possession of classified documents. True, it does evidence what Dr. West has called Trump’s “gangster proclivities” but, in the grand scheme of things, these purloined papers are barely the stuff of a short story. For that matter, don’t civil libertarians as a rule look askance at purported official state secrets? Trump is additionally accused of trying to tamper with the voting results in Georgia like … JFK did in Illinois and Texas in 1960. Voter fraud is a graver matter, but Trump’s indiscretion is the lowest hanging fruit in a system rife with voter disenfranchisement built right into it: the Electoral College, the U.S. Senate, the corporate duopoly, corporate dirty money, rigged primaries…. Indeed, these fixed institutions and mechanisms serve as the guardrails of capitalist democracy to prevent “mob”—i.e., popular—rule. Insofar as the Democratic Party has not only not contested but, on the contrary, is a direct beneficiary of this systemic voter fraud, it’s hard to credit pious protestations over Trump’s ham-fisted attempt to steal some votes. But if the Democratic Party succeeds in its machinations and Trump is disqualified, then, whatever the legal merits of the case against him, his swelling, seething mass of supporters will perceive it—rightly, in this writer’s opinion—as a constitutional coup to effectively disenfranchise them. Justice will, alas, be on their side if they invoke Locke’s “appeal to Heaven” as they enter into violent civil revolt.
 “The date of the new European catastrophe will be determined by the time necessary for the arming of Germany. It is not a question of months, but neither is it a question of decades. It will be but a few years before Europe is again plunged into a war.” (1933)
 “It would be a fatal blunder, unworthy of a revolutionary party, to turn Hitler into a fetish, to exaggerate his power, to overlook the objective limits of his successes and conquests. True enough, Hitler boastfully promises to establish the domination of the whole world ‘for one thousand years.’ But in all likelihood this splendor will not endure for ten years.”
 “Through the fascist agency, capitalism sets in motion the masses of the crazed petty bourgeois, and bands of the declassed and demoralized lumpen proletariat—all the countless human beings whom finance capital itself has brought to desperation and frenzy.”
 “When the social crisis takes on an intolerable acuteness, a particular party appears on the scene with the direct aim of agitating the petty bourgeoisie to a white heat and of directing its hatred and its despair against the proletariat.”
 “But the established bourgeoisie does not like the fascist means of solving its problems either, for the shocks and disturbances, although in the interests of bourgeois society, involve dangers for it as well. This is the source of the antagonism between fascism and the traditional parties of the bourgeoisie.”
 “German fascism, like Italian fascism, raised itself to power on the backs of the petty bourgeoisie, which it turned into a battering ram against the organizations of the working class and the institutions of democracy. But fascism in power is least of all the rule of the petty bourgeoisie. On the contrary, it is the most ruthless dictatorship of monopoly capitalism.”
 “In order to find a way out of [the capitalist crisis], the bourgeoisie must absolutely rid itself of the pressure exerted by the workers’ organizations; these must be eliminated, destroyed, utterly crushed.”
 “Fascism is the continuation of capitalism, an attempt to perpetuate its existence by means of the most bestial and monstrous measures. Capitalism obtained an opportunity to resort to fascism only because the proletariat did not accomplish the social revolution in time.”