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Defending Democracy Through Elections Won’t Be Enough to Stop Fascism

The left must present a radical alternative to both fascism and capitalist democracy.

Tennessee State Police stand between members of the Proud Boys and counterprotesters during a protest against gender-affirming care by Vanderbilt University Medical Center, at the War Memorial Plaza in Nashville, Tennessee, on October 21, 2022.

Two years after the attempted coup on January 6, 2021, the threat of fascism has only grown. In just the last month, a neo-Nazi couple was arrested for planning to “completely destroy” Baltimore, a majority-Black city, by attacking its power grid; and in Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis has launched an offensive against public education, particularly Black studies — in an effort described by historian Barbara Ransby as “textbook proto-fascism.”

Across the political spectrum, people sense that the social order is crumbling. Young people feel little hope for a future shaped by climate catastrophe, growing inequality and political violence. The COVID-19 pandemic has intensified the atomization of society and driven people to search for community, oftentimes online. An increasing number of young people, particularly disaffected white men, find comrades in far right forums who encourage them to seek revenge for their perceived victimization.

Fascism offers a provocative critique of the contemporary world and the ongoing crisis of liberal democracy. It identifies real problems facing people who feel abandoned by society, including a lack of good jobs, skyrocketing inflation and insufficient health care. Yet it proposes false solutions, attacking Jews, people of color and “wokeness” rather than addressing the foundation of our social crisis: the fact that our society is organized to maximize profits for the uberrich at the cost of our lives and our planet’s health.

Fascists prey on young men’s sense of humiliation and offer what historian of fascism Robert O. Paxton termed “compensatory cults of unity, energy, and purity” that engage in “redemptive violence.” They assure these young men that their problems are not their fault, but rather come from the hands of “globalist elites,” feminist women and liberal “degeneracy.”

Whether they are so-called lone wolves or members of groups like Patriot Front and the Proud Boys — or infiltrators of police departments — fascists are increasingly embracing a purifying violence aimed at social transformation and the elimination of perceived enemies. Most recently, fascists have helped provoke a moral panic against trans people and the supposed queer grooming of children. Recent mass shootings and attacks on the U.S. power grid offer chilling glimpses of further violence to come.

The threat of fascist violence is not limited to the anti-social inclinations of marginal groups. The MAGA wing of the Republican Party has continued its path towards fascism. Since the failed January 6 coup, recent grassroots activity of fascists has opened further space for Republican officials like Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Georgia) to promote their ideas within the halls of government. Consider Greene’s recent proclamation to the New York Young Republican Club that if she and Steve Bannon had been in charge on January 6, “it would have been armed” and “we would have won.” President Biden’s recent willingness to call the MAGA movement “semi-fascism” indicates just how bad things have gotten.

Many on the left have rallied behind the Democrats to defend democratic institutions against the insurrectionary threat of the fascist right. Although this may achieve certain short-term goals, including the prosecution of January 6 conspirators, it is ultimately an insufficient — and at times dangerous and counterproductive — strategy. The liberal repudiation of fascism through the defense of electoral democracy and mainstream institutions is not enough to defeat the fascist menace. We need to address the root causes of the deepening crisis and provide an alternative vision of a better world.

When the left limits its activity to defending mainstream liberal institutions, fascists are emboldened to present themselves as the only real alternative to the status quo. This approach also fails to address the real grievances many people have with the failures of these institutions and the Democratic Party. In our search for a more effective strategy, we can learn from anti-fascists who confronted a new wave of fascist organizing in the late-20th century.

During the 1980s, leading elements of the Ku Klux Klan and the broader white power movement across the country declared revolutionary war on the U.S. government. Even as President Ronald Reagan led a conservative counterrevolution that won state power for the New Right, the fascist far right embraced the idea of anti-systemic armed struggle. They felt betrayed by what they saw as the capitulation of the New Right to an officially colorblind liberal democracy. Instead of using violence to uphold the status quo’s racial order as the KKK had traditionally done, neo-Nazis and Klansmen united to fight for a “white revolution” against what they deemed the “Zionist Occupied Government.” They offered a radical program to white people who felt betrayed by the government’s grudging acceptance of Black civil rights and the U.S. defeat by communists in Vietnam.

Many were inspired by the vision of revolutionary struggle laid out by the leader of the National Alliance, William Pierce, in his novel The Turner Diaries (1978), in which a neo-Nazi organization called The Order overthrows the government and forges a new white nation. The novel inspired a real-life group called The Order that carried out armed robberies and murdered the Jewish talk show host Alan Berg in 1984. Other fascists in this era, most notably Tom Metzger of the White Aryan Resistance, targeted punk subculture to recruit racist skinheads and harness their violent energy for the white revolution. But a new generation of anti-fascists rose up to meet them, often with masked faces and baseball bats in hand.

Activists in Anti-Racist Action (1988-2013), the leading anti-fascist organization of this period, revised their analysis of fascism in order to confront its revolutionary turn. Activist-theorists including Don Hamerquist, J. Sakai and Matthew Lyons insisted that fascism cannot be reduced to a ruling class gambit to save capitalism. Instead, they argued that fascism must be understood as its own radical tradition that includes a popular anti-elite sentiment going beyond vulgar antisemitism.

What distinguishes fascism from more mainstream right-wing populism is its commitment to seizing state power and using it to dismantle democratic institutions and violently remake society. Fascism’s fundamental danger thus lies not in the violent actions of small groups, but rather in the potential for these groups to organize mass movements as they did in Italy and Germany in the early 20th century.

Following this analysis of fascism, Anti-Racist Action (ARA) confronted neo-Nazis to disrupt their organizing and deny them a platform to spread their racist ideology. Born in Minneapolis out of an anti-racist skinhead crew called the Baldies, Anti-Racist Action quickly spread across the country. At its height, it had roughly 120 chapters with thousands of militant activists willing to put their bodies on the line in physical confrontations.

Anti-Racist Action became known for disrupting KKK meetings and rallies, running Nazis out of punk scenes, and helping defend abortion clinics from anti-choice militants like Operation Rescue. ARA played a key role in beating back the fascist threat in the late 20th century, culminating in a decisive victory against a fledgling alliance of neo-Nazi groups in the 2002 “Battle of York” in Pennsylvania.

Although we have much to learn from Anti-Racist Action, fascism is not the only enemy today. With each new UN report on climate change, it becomes clearer that the profit-driven path we are on threatens humanity’s very existence through the destruction of the planet. We also must contend with widespread violence against BIPOC and queer people, the government’s assault on reproductive rights, and the increasing immiseration of the working and middle classes as economic inequality has surpassed Gilded Age levels. Until we address these fundamental problems, fascism will continue to attract new followers.

The anti-fascist left is thus called to fight both fascism and capitalism at once. We must follow the example of those who defend targeted communities from the imminent threat of violence, such as anti-fascists who defended drag shows from the far right. But we cannot focus solely on the threat of small groups of relatively marginal extremists. Anti-fascism must be embedded in broader struggles against oppression and exploitation. In order to defeat fascism for good, we need to organize mass movements that address the root causes of our social crisis and fight for a better world.

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