We Need a Popular Antifascist Movement

To fight fascism we need long-haul working class organizations, concrete political alternatives, and, most urgently, a popular anti-fascist movement in the streets.

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Following the recent far-right riot at the US Capitol, it’s tempting to seek refuge. The sight of marauders with guns, zip ties, confederate flags, and Holocaust fan gear was ominous. And the more we learn about the possible involvement of police — both on- and off-duty — the worse things appear. Other right-wingers inspired by those at the Capitol are already organizing more actions of the same sort. 

At the same time, the response of the state and influential sectors of the capitalist class has been swift. Tech companies booted Trump from almost every imaginable social media platform, and a broad array of corporate donors are now pursuing a donation boycott of legislators who voted against certifying the election results. Congress, of course, impeached Trump for a second time — for sedition — with House Democrats joined by a small group of Republicans. In addition, there is now a vast series of ongoing investigations by the FBI and Department of Homeland Security into the riot’s participants, with some speculation of charges looming for those speech-makers who encouraged the event, including Rudy Giuliani and Trump himself. This is the ruling class’s version of disavowing Trump and defending its own legitimacy: using its vast power and resources to suppress and react to a particularly visible manifestation of the rage of the right.

But does this make us safer? And for the organized left — the socialist left — is it strategic to pile onto these efforts?

To the question of safety: no. We have just watched for four years as capitalists and political elites acted as either hapless foes or witting accomplices to Donald Trump. While it’s clear that his election was in some sense a breach in the representative apparatuses of the state and led to undesirable instability for some segments of the capitalist class, the official “Resistance” led by the Democratic Party and a handful of Republican elites has, at best, served as a marginal obstacle to Trump’s impulses, and has insisted on treating him as an aberration rather than a symptom.1 The crisis of representation that allowed him to enter through the party and electoral systems using the institutions therein has not abated, nor have those institutions posed any fundamental challenge to his ability to rally people to his politics and give cover to the far right under a broader authoritarian populist appeal.2 They have no new ideas to address far-right violence — hence another impeachment, all the more irrelevant since indictment would only come to pass once Trump has already left office. The only other solution existing institutions have is to expand the very armed apparatus that we faced down  this summer in the name of racial justice and police abolition.

On the right, there was of course a whole passel of politicians and influential capitalists who,despite initially resisting Trump’s incursion into the state, quickly sought to make use of the new regime the best they could. Those who have suddenly decided to resign from the Trump administration, withdraw their political donations, or, as in the case of Mitch McConnell, become open to the idea of impeachment, show nothing but hypocrisy and opportunism. The opportunity they now pursue is to continue the same destructive right-wing neoliberal agenda but without the constraints and trade-offs they had to make to account for the apparent electoral luster of Trump. These people, of course, offer no long-term protection from the violence of the right. When a new, charismatic and perhaps even more effective far-right leader emerges,3 there’s no reason to think they won’t do what they’re told and smell the glove if they sense it’s to their benefit.

After years of jockeying, play-acting, and equivocating among political elites, the far right persists, whatever Trump’s electoral fortunes. The forces of reaction may have undergone a decomposition after the events of Charlottesville in 2017, but the Capitol riot was, among other things, a reconvergence of the far right’s different factions: Proud Boys, QAnon followers, neo-confederates, Nazis, off-duty cops, COVID deniers, media personalities — not to mention a handful of lawmakers from around the US.4 The underlying source of appeal for these brands of politics, and of Trump, have not gone away.  We can expect more street violence, more lone-wolf terrorist attacks, and more attempts to recruit and organize.

Many strategic questions about what the left should do now appear to hinge on how we label this political tendency. Yet whether the violent right-wing strains of American politics can be designated fascist is secondary to the need to understand and combat them on their own terms. It’s useful to conceptualize fascism itself in historically variable and non-teleological terms. That is: for tendencies on the far right to be dangerous, they do not have to result in the rise of a Hitler-figure and a systematic genocide. Reactionary, authoritarian politics with elements of racial terror are endemic in the history of capitalism, with differing levels of access to state power and sometimes even with conflictive relationships to powerful elites.

We can understand this better by looking to Black anticolonial thinkers who used the term fascism to designate not just Italy and Germany in the interwar period, but also the racializing violence that preceded that period across the far reaches of European empire. South Africa, according to pan-Africanist and onetime Communist Party member George Padmore, was a typical example of “colonial fascism,” and this same policy was also applied by Britain in the West Indies. Likewise, US-based radicals like Angela Davis and George Jackson in the 1960s and 1970s used the term to analyze the changing forms of racial domination in the United States, tying the insights of their anticolonial elders together with analysis of the “classic” cases of interwar Italy and Germany. As Alberto Toscano recently put it in a review of this intellectual history:

The new, U.S. fascism that Jackson and Davis strive to delineate is not an unwanted return from the “other scene” of colonial violence, but originates from liberal democracy itself. Indeed, it was a sense of the disavowed bonds between liberal and fascist forms of the state which, for Davis, was one of the great lessons passed on by Herbert Marcuse, whose grasp of this nexus in 1930s Germany allowed him to discern the fascist tendencies in the United States of his exile.5

The violence of the far right can have many forms, and short of a centralized process carried out via the capture of a state executive, there is still reason to be attentive to what Toscano calls “the connection between the features of ‘incipient fascism’—in the U.S. case, the normalization of forms of racial terror and oppression—and the emergence of explicitly fascist movements and ideologies.” 

Whatever we call it, then, the most important thing right now is to recognize the relay between grassroots rightwing violence and the violence of the capitalist state. Clara Zetkin addressed the topic as early as 1923, before the emergent fascisms in Germany and Italy had stabilized.6 Zetkin linked the new fascist movements within Europe to the crisis-level instability in the aftermath of World War I. She emphasized the speed at which fascism’s appeal rises and falls in these conditions, at times finding masses of people, including working-class people, open to its politics, and at times repelling these same masses.  She also emphasized the contradiction between fascism’s desire to use state institutions to impose order on the one hand, but wariness of compromise with existing powerson the other; as much as fascists want the immediate repression of their enemies, use of existing institutions might undercut the fascist claim to represent a definitive break with liberal democracy. These same contradictions are at play among the far-right movement in the US today, as seen in its fraught relationship with police: backing the blue — in part as a reaction to Black Lives Matter and the mass protests this past summer — but also meeting police with violence when they become an obstacle, as at the Capitol.7

For Zetkin, these contradictions may impose limits on growth of the far right, but she is adamant that communists must also combat this growth directly. This means both waging a large-scale ideological and political struggle against the right and meeting fascists wherever they appear to actively oppose them. The former, she specifies, means not just organizing around the material needs that emerge in the course of a crisis, but also posing a political — I would even say civilizational — alternative to fascism’s appeal:

We must understand that, incontestably, growing masses here are seeking an escape route from the dreadful suffering of our time. This involves much more than filling one’s stomach. No, the best of them are seeking an escape from deep anguish of the soul. They are longing for new and unshakable ideals and a world outlook that enables them to understand nature, society, and their own life; a world outlook that is not a sterile formula but operates creatively and constructively.

The alternative, then, is to offer something distinct from fascism as well as to the system that has given rise to it: capitalism and the ineffectual liberal-democratic state. While this is a larger-scale and perhaps longer-term project, Zetkin cautions that in the near term, “the proletariat has urgent need for self-defense against fascism, and this self-protection against fascist terror must not be neglected for a single moment.”

To link the long-term goal of a revolutionary alternative to either capitalist liberal democracy or fascism with the short-term goal of keeping the far right at bay, we need a popular anti-fascist movement. As the term implies, a popular movement must be first and foremost in motion: dynamic, driven, and even amorphous — all positive qualities when facing a foe that is likewise in flux. The possibility of a “popular front” involving the DSA and the Democratic Party does not exist, because the DSA does not constitute enough of a political force to be in alliance with that party without tailing them. If we join the efforts of the Democrats as a bloc, we can only be cheerleaders for their efforts to expand policing, which, as in the case of other social ills, can never vanquish the conditions that have allowed the far right to fester.8 The idea of a “united front” of working class organizations, drawn from the writings of Zetkin and others,9 faces the obstacle that such organizations are few and far between. In this moment of organizational weakness for the left, if we want to engage broad layers of working-class people in the streets, we will need to be part of a movement rather than a front. Bringing in those with whom we work and live to outnumber fascists and others on the right will also lay the foundation for longer-term organizing to augment tenant and worker power and open new political horizons.

On the other hand, when we do mobilize, we must be clear that we are not calling on the state as our champion. Any ambiguity on this point, as in a recent call for an inauguration day action by NYC-DSA and a handful of other organizations, is dangerous.10 In this case, it led to text messages asking DSA members to “demand that our city and state governments, along with the incoming Biden Administration fight the far right.” For an organization committed to abolitionist politics, and to actually defeating the right, this is worse than inadequate. It cedes ground to a solipsistic state currently basking in the glow of its own faux-democratic institutions while doing nothing to displace the contradictions on which the far right has thrived. Those who accuse the DSA of being merely an adjunct of the Democratic Party will have been correct if we offer no independent initiative to fight the right. As Zetkin writes, “The more we go to the masses, the more necessary it is…to be organizationally and ideologically unified.” To pose an alternative, we need to act autonomously; if we do not possess such an alternative to the mutually-constitutive relationship between capitalism and violent right-wing politics, then we have no business existing as an independent organization.

Building the power to fight the right in the short term — inviting our co-workers, neighbors, and family members into the street — will also contribute to defeating the right in the long run; we need sustained organizing in our workplaces and neighborhoods to develop autonomous power there, as well as to continue building a strong, principled, independent political organization capable of changing this country and the world. We may have missed some chances to proactively address the pandemic crisis, as Mike Davis has recently argued, but that crisis, unfortunately, has only just begun.11 By working toward new concepts and practices of safety grounded in popular solidarity — rather than the false security provided by the state’s armed squadrons 12 — we will also be doing the positive work of abolition, striking at the heart of American white supremacy and capitalist domination by “building the future from the present,” to borrow a phrase from Ruth Wilson Gilmore.13 A popular, autonomous, anti-fascist movement can be a torch carrying what Zetkin called “the flame of a new social life.”

  1. These same critics of Trump have also pushed him to pursue imperialist violence in line with the bipartisan foreign policy consensus, as when CNN’s Fareed Zakaria famously lauded Trump and said he “became President of the United States” by launching 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at Syria
  2. Stuart Hall, “The Great Moving Right Show,” Marxism Today (January 1979): 14–20.
    Available from:
  3. Juan del Maso, interview with Warren Montag, “It’s Only a Matter of Time Before a More Competent Trump Emerges,” Left Voice, January 11, 2021.
  4. Brendan O’Connor, “A Preview of What’s To Come,” The Nation, January 7, 2021.
  5. Ablerto Toscano, “The Long Shadow of Racial Fascism,” Boston Review, October 28, 2020.
  6. Clara Zetkin, “The Struggle Against Fascism,” report to the Third Plenum of the Executive Committee of the Communist International, June 20, 1923. Reprinted in Mike Taber and John Riddell, eds., Fighting Fascism: How to Struggle and How to Win (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2017). Available from:
  7. Jarrod Shanahan, “The Big Takeover,” Hard Crackers, January 7, 2021.
  8. For more on the relationship between abolition and the state’s response to the Capitol riot, see Kay Gabriel, “The Capitol Seizure, Abolition and Anti-Fascism,” The Partisan, January 15, 2021.
  9. John Riddel, “How Did Socialists Respond to the Advent of Fascism?” Marxist Essays and Commentary (blog), August 11, 2018.
  10. The other organizations organizing for the event are: Socialist Alternative, MORE UFT, DC37, Association of Legislative Employees, Labor 100 Fightback, AfroSocialists, DSA Labor Branch, Rank and File Action at CUNY, and NYC Fight for Our Lives.
  11. Mike Davis, “Hopes for 2021?” Sidecar (blog of the New Left Review), January 6, 2021.
  12. Stuart Schrader, interview by Katie Way, “Of Course the Police Didn’t Keep the Capitol ‘Safe.’ That’s Not Their Job,” Vice, January 8, 2021.
  13. Ruth Wilson Gilmore, interview by Leópold Lambert, “Making Abolitionist Geography in California’s Central Valley,” The Funambulist, November 30, 2018.
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