Hillary Clinton’s Memoir is Bad

I am posting here my review of Hillary Clinton’s book “What Happened” that was originally published on Socialist Worker on September 22, 2017. I am obviously not thrilled with the last paragraph at this particular moment. But as a historian, I have always been irritated at interpreters who try to wrench communist writers’ “universal” or “valuable” lessons out of their “problematic” devotions to certain parties, while ignoring that these documents can only be understood from the contexts in which they emerged. Also in the interest of honesty.  Also also because socialist organizing is still good. I have, however, edited out some of the revisions the SW editors made. There’s no real difference in politics or content; they were just weird, unmotivated stylistic changes. 

Readers of SW will probably not be shocked to learn that this book is bad. So why bother with a review? The answer is that, while books like this aren’t exactly intellectual achievements, they do provide a useful window into how the ruling class thinks about us.

Much of the book is boring in a thoroughly banal way: Hillary met a voter on the campaign trail that inspired her! Hillary has a list of wonkish policies! Hillary loves her family! There are the inevitable references to Hillbilly Elegy, self-care, and Hamilton.  In fact, the book sounds like Clinton (or her interns, rather) read a bunch of thinkpieces from Vox and Slate, put them through a blender, sprinkled in some quotes from fridge magnets, and frosted the whole thing with some cloying Methodist piety.

If you’re wondering if Clinton takes responsibility for anything in this book, she does: she takes responsibility for being too smart and too good for the rest of us. She ‘confesses’ that her “instinctive response is to talk about how we can fix things,” but people were simply too angry to listen. In one passage, she describes throngs of women coming up to her to do penance after the election: “On one occasion, an older woman dragged her adult daughter by the arm to come talk to me and ordered her to apologize for not voting—which she did, head bowed in contrition. I wanted to stare right in her eyes and say, ‘You didn’t vote? How could you not vote?! You abdicated your responsibility as a citizen at the worst possible time! And now you want me to make you feel better?’ Of course, I didn’t say any of that.” Of course, Hillary was too classy to scold her to her face: she chose to do it in a book released to the national public, instead. She even bizarrely wonders whether her (token) efforts to help Flint after the water crisis lost her white voters in Michigan, but magnanimously explains “that’s not what it was about for me” because there were “real live kids” to help. Truly, not since Nelson Mandela (whom she namedrops no less than three times) has someone been so willing to sacrifice themselves in the anti-racist struggle.  

In fact, this emphasis on her ostensible devotion on dealing with “real live” issues suffuses the book.  She accuses Bernie Sanders of “thunder[ing] on at every event about the sins of “the millionaires and billionaires,” while she “was more focused on offering practical solutions that would address real problems and make life better for people,” as if “millionaires and billionaires” didn’t create the “real problems” working-class people face in their everyday lives. Instead, Clinton offers a patchwork of policies: a higher minimum wage (but not too high!), further fixes to Obamacare, proposals to give businesses more money in the vague hope they might create jobs someday, even a program to simply encourage people to move out of economically struggling towns (and she wonders why she lost in the rust belt!) By “practical solutions,” she doesn’t actually mean solutions that work. She means solutions that are “practical” for the ruling class, that cause them minimal inconvenience and forestall radical change.

While of course Clinton would never say that in those words, she is quite explicit about her hatred of radicalism. She recounts her reaction to the 1968 police attacks on protestors at the Democratic National Convention: she worried “the antiwar movement was causing a backlash that would help elect Richard Nixon and prolong the war.” Never mind that the 1968 protests occurred precisely because the DNC elected a pro-war candidate, Hubert Humphrey: the most important thing was getting a Democrat into office at all costs.  

No, she says that “[i]nstead of waiting for a revolution, the kind of change this girl needed was … ‘a strong and slow boring of hard boards.’” The entire history of socialists and radicals doing precisely that kind of hard, slow work in building the labor movement, the antiwar movement, the civil rights movement, and the women’s movement whose legacies she seeks to appropriate is ignored.

Furthermore, she complains about protestors affiliated with Black Lives Matter disrupting her talks because they wanted her to take responsibility for supporting the 1994 crime bill that helped created mass incarceration. She goes on to defend both the crime bill as a “tough compromise,” and throws in a defense of her husband’s destruction of welfare for good measure. This sums up Clinton’s “practical solutions”: policies that devastate black and working-class communities. She scolds the protestors for not “engag[ing] constructively,” unlike the “leaders” she met with who back neoliberal education reforms that tear apart black and Latino working-class schools.

The chapter “Turning Mourning into a Movement” highlights this insincerity and condescension. She seeks to impress her readers with how much she listened to family members of victims of police violence and how deeply she felt their grief, then goes on to assure us that “I feel strongly about this: the vast majority of police officers are honorable, brave public servants who put their lives on the line every day to protect others.” She then turns the whole issue into a discussion of gun control, ignoring that the Black Lives Matter movement started to protest precisely those murderers who are armed and funded by the state.

One of the most insidious things about the book is the way Clinton appropriates the struggles of ordinary people in order to try to convince us that her interests are the same as ours. She complains about emotional labor, a concept originally meant to explain the experiences of female service workers. However, for Clinton it is a problem for “women CEOs” and “women heads of state” who might have to serve coffee at a meeting, not for the women who stand on their feet serving coffee every day and don’t earn six-figure salaries. And she credits female politicians’ experience in this “emotional labor” for allowing them to form better coalitions in Congress than their male counterparts. The nature of these coalitions, however, is left unspecified: should we celebrate Congress voting to drop bombs or deport immigrants because they were brokered by women?

Hillary also succeeds in what might seem like the impossible task of attacking Trump—from the right! She indulges fully in paranoia about Russia, comparing the United States to a body whose immune system has been weakened: “Now that the Russians have infected us and seen how weak our defenses are, they’ll keep at it. . . . Their ultimate goal is to undermine—perhaps even destroy—Western democracy itself.” In order to protect our precious bodily fluids, “we need to get tough with Putin,” by increasing US intervention in Syria and Ukraine and bolstering NATO. (No appeals to “emotional labor” here!) She warns that Trump will not “face this threat head-on” and begs us not to dismiss her discussion of Russia “as me trying to shift blame for my loss in 2016.” In a way, she’s right—while she is trying to shift the blame for her loss, she’s also trying to present herself to the rest of the ruling class as the best manager of US imperialism. She presents herself as the defender of the American-led order as a whole, which “defended universal human rights, defied totalitarianism, and delivered unprecedented peace, prosperity, and freedom.” This neglects the millions killed by the US in the Middle East, Latin America, Asia, Africa, Europe, and the U.S. itself over the course of the twentieth century—but perhaps we can assume Chileans or Palestinians or Vietnamese had it coming for not engaging constructively.  

Along with the cops, the military, and the intelligence agencies, Clinton finds much in common with the politicians on the “other side”. She gushes about how warm and comforting George W. Bush was during the inauguration. She finds inspiration in Theodore Roosevelt, the white supremacist and imperialist, whom she praises as “a shrewd politician who managed to fend off the demands of angry populists on his left, who wanted to go even further toward Socialism, and conservatives on his right, who would have let the robber barons amass even more wealth and power.” Clinton clearly sees herself in this mode, bragging about her “defense of the American system of free enterprise” in the Iowa primaries. However, if anything socialists should be heartened by these passages—prominent U.S. politicians now feel the need to openly attack socialism, rather than simply ignore it.

Let me close with one good piece of advice Clinton writes in this book: “Find an organization that’s doing work you believe in. … If it doesn’t exist, build it.” Like nothing else, the bankruptcy of Hillary Clinton and the Democratic party as a whole in the face of the horrors of the Trump era proves the need for our own, working-class organizations. So fight the right, build the left, join the socialists!

Can there be an anti-liberal anti-fascism?: Reflections on ‘Against the Fascist Creep’

Thanks to everyone who encouraged me throughout the writing process and to Alex and Heather for doing that fascism reading group with me. Please read the endnotes; they’re important too.

 

Last Wednesday afternoon, I spent several minutes on campus scraping a fascist sticker off a glass display case. It’s not the first time I’ve run across fascist propaganda, either at this campus or at my old one. There are open fascists on the streets these days; but far more often there’s just a steady drip of fascist propaganda quietly appearing and disappearing in public places. In this environment, it’s no wonder a book called Against the Fascist Creep gained a wide hearing. Ultimately, however, the book points the antifascist movement in all the wrong directions.

Against the Fascist Creep, written by Alexander Reid Ross for the anarchist AK Press, devotes itself to “those messy crossovers on the margins of left and right, the ways fascism cultivates a movement, and the ways that the left often unwittingly cedes the space for fascism to creep into the mainstream and radical subcultures.”[i] There are certainly plenty of examples of this kind of “red-brown” crossover, including the recently-deceased Lyndon LaRouche. Given things like Fox News host Tucker Carlson condemning “big corporations,” or Diana Johnstone endorsing Le Pen in the pages of Counterpunch, there is a pressing need for a specific analysis of how fascists use left-wing rhetoric and infiltrate left-wing spaces.

However, in Against the Fascism Creep, this left-right crossover is not just a particular aspect of fascism that leftists need to be aware of. Rather, this kind of “syncretism” is, for Ross, part of the fundamental nature of fascism. Ross gives two pathways for “fascist creep”: through the mainstream right or through the far left. However, the crucial role of mainstream institutions, from the military to the police to churches to the media to big business[ii], in developing and driving fascist movements is neglected throughout the book. Instead, the main focus is on the margins, on cranks and grouplets and underground figures. This would be one thing if Ross was just writing advice to left-wing activists on how to recognize and combat fascist infiltration. But, instead, for him fascism is definitionally a synthesis between the far left and the far right.

This tendency to lay fascism at the doors of the left is only partially developed in Against the Fascist Creep. However, Ross’s work and public statements have only gotten more strident on this point, pushing him away from the left and toward liberalism. The nadir of this, for me, was his recent attacks on Leen Dweik, the Palestinian student who protested Chelsea Clinton because of the latter’s support of Islamophobia. Ross equated Dweik’s anti-Zionism with “eliminationist” anti-Semites like David Duke.

Unfortunately, the most vocal voices fighting with ARR have themselves been based on shaky politics and sloppy arguments-by-association rather than a thoroughgoing analysis of the flaws in Ross’s analysis.[iii]So, how does the author of an anti-fascist text end up standing against a young woman from an oppressed group protesting against mainstream racism? This is what I want to try to tease out.

Ross’s focus on the “syncretic” nature of fascism is not unique. He explicitly draws on the academic “new consensus” on fascism and the paradigm established by the historian Zeev Sternhell in his book Neither Left Nor Right. In the introduction, Ross argues “fascism’s syncretic form of fringe fusion takes place as a result of extreme responses to modern conditions.” He then goes on to argue the presence of ex-leftists as prominent fascist leaders shows that “[t]he [interwar fascist] movement was led by a host of frustrated and powerful leftists joining with sectors of the nationalist radical right to attack liberalism.”

I want to emphasize this, so I am not accused of oversimplifying or misinterpreting the book’s thesis. Ross’s argument is not just that red-brown cross-overs exist, but that fascism is defined by left-right synthesis:

New syntheses that mixed agrarian populism, urban workers’ movements, and elite conspiratorialism began to develop among revolutionaries. On the most fundamental level, the grand populist theories of left- and right-wing collectivism, aggregated into nationalism and socialism, met head-on with individualist theories of the vanguard—the conspiratorial elite and the superman. Russian revolutionaries like Pyotr Tkachev and Sergey Nechayev began to fuse Narodnik populism (similar in some respects to the völkisch movement), Blanquism, Bakuninism, and Marxism into a vanguardist doctrine of the seizure of state power through violent acts, including terror and assassination.

This is a superficially powerful account, given the reality of figures like Mussolini (formerly of the Italian Socialist Party, and its radical wing at that), and fascism’s fierce attacks on existing society. However, it relies on fundamentally liberal myths of what fascism is. Fascism is not a “revolutionary” doctrine that seeks to overturn modern capitalism. Rather, it is a counter-revolutionary doctrine, which seeks to defend capitalism and private property from the threat of proletarian revolution. It is not a synthesis of right- and left-wing insurrection, but a right-wing insurrection against left-wing insurrection.

One challenge to this paradigm is Ishay Landa’s book, The Apprentice’s Sorcerer. Landa sets himself up against the academic paradigm established by Sternhell. He discusses Sternhell’s strongest example: Georges Sorel (also mentioned by Ross), the syndicalist theorist whose ideas about myth and the nation formed a bridge for some socialists from Marxism to fascism. Landa shows that, while Sorel fetishized “proletarian violence,” he was not “a fierce revolutionary opponent of the bourgeois and of capitalism,” but instead advocated “middle-class regeneration” and “the pristine strength of capitalism.”[iv] Similarly, John Abromeit quotes Sorel’s 1902 statement that Sorel “presupposes that private property is an unquestionable fact” and that ‘socialization’ of the economy did not require overturning private property. Abromeit argues that “Sorel’s critique of bourgeois civilization here is …. directed at the specific development of the European and, in particular, French bourgeoisie. Rather than calling for an abolition of the bourgeoisie as a separate social class, Sorel believes that they need to return to the ‘noble sentiments’ of hard-work and asceticism.”[v] This sort of ideology helps explain why Mussolini could celebrate “workers’ control” while collaborating with industrialists. For Ross, Mussolini’s celebration of the widespread occupations of factories by Italian workers in 1920-21 is proof of the “synthetic” nature of fascism. However, while Mussolini did attempt to participate in the factory occupations, he was rebuffed, and while he claimed to celebrate workers’ control, he also promised Italian factory owners that “At this moment—we repeat it at the top of our voice—we will resist a bolshevik experiment with all the means at our disposal.”[vi]

 

Thus, fascist (or proto-fascist) condemnations of modern capitalism, the bourgeoisie, big corporations, and so on are not anti-capitalist critiques. They gain adherents who want to overturn aspects of modern capitalism they despise, while maintaining the basis of private property. This is not a “synthesis” between left and right. It is a right-wing reaction against potential left-wing revolution. As Landa cautions, one cannot equate all forms of opposition to liberalism: “one can be anti-liberal from a markedly pro-capitalist and pro-bourgeois position, whereby liberalism means an ideology and practice that burdens capitalism and stands in its way.”[vii]

Private property is not one issue among many. The defense or abolition of private property is the crux of the conflict between right and left. Fascists may complain about the bourgeoisie or capitalism, but their fundamental aim is always to crush working-class revolution, preserve private property, and uphold hierarchy and inequality.

Let us look at a specific historic situation to see why Ross’s model of fascism fails. It is true that Mussolini gathered quite a few cast-offs from the socialist movement around him. But it was not this “cross-over” between the left and the right that allowed fascism to “creep” into the mainstream. Rather, it was how the fascist movement served the interest of the existing capitalist class at a particular juncture. Italian fascists gained power not through crankish ex-leftists and clever rhetoric. Rather, their initial leap into mainstream politics was by proving to Italian landowners that they were effective in suppressing left-wing peasant organizations. Thus, it is highly misleading to view “agrarian populism” tout court as a source of fascism. It was, rather, a way to maintain the power of landlords. As the left-wing historian Tom Behan writes,

The second wave of fascism occurred in the countryside, and was largely outside of Mussolini’s control. Around towns such as Ferrara the landowners’ main crop, hemp, had fallen in value, and to maintain their profits they had to drive down wages. Furthermore, peasants had been radicalised by the war, and in the South they had begun to occupy land. Financed eagerly by large landowners, the fascists systematically attacked the organising centres of these structures. Fascists beat up Socialists, while promising a return to traditional values and order. Unlike the nationalist and populist fascism of the cities, rural fascism was violently anti-Socialist and openly supported the interests of large landowners. Mussolini wanted to be involved with this second wave, and at the very beginning urged fascists on during a rally in the town of Cremona: ‘A million sheep will always be dispersed by the roar of a single lion.’….The success of rural fascism had shown [Italian industrialists] that Mussolini was the right horse to back.”[viii]

As Robert O. Paxton puts it, “Mussolini was saved from oblivion” by squadrismo.[ix] His book, The Anatomy of Fascism, highlights how the fundamentally similar conditions of French, Italian, German, Japanese, and American countrysides produced various forms of fascism (the earliest being the Ku Klux Klan). Thus, it is highly misleading to refer to fascism as a form of “agrarian populism.” Fascism did not “creep” into the mainstream via collaboration with the left. It smashed its way into the mainstream by physically attacking the left.

 

This is not to say left-right crossover in the realm of fascism is a myth. It is not; I mentioned several examples above, and you can probably think of more. Fascism does emerge partly “from below”—that is, from those outside the ruling class who are deprived and frightened by the course of modern capitalism. But this does not make fascism independent of the capitalist ruling class or of capitalist economy. It is, as Michael Kitchen argues, the very interplay between the fascist movement and capitalist elites that characterizes fascism:

The economic system of fascism is therefore characterised neither by the ‘primary of politics’, whereby the fascist regime exercised full political domination over the economy in a direct interventionist system, nor by the domination of the entire state by a group of monopoly capitalists. For all the close relationships between the fascist regimes and the capitalist elite, for which there is massive empirical evidence, and for all the similarities of the aims and intentions of both groups, and in spite of the fact that fascism was exceptionally useful for the capitalists, it would be a gross over-simplification to insist on an identity between capitalist elite and fascist party. The relationship is best described by the Hegelian concept of ‘non-identical identity.’[x]

This is because, fundamentally, “the social function of fascism was to stabilise, strengthen and, to a certain degree, transform capitalist property relationships and to ensure the social and economic domination of the capitalist class….It claims to stand for those with property, however small and insignificant that property might be, against those who threaten to take that property away from them.[xi] (emphasis mine)

So, this is the fundamental problem with the idea of fascist “syncretism.” Fascism is a reaction by the right against the left, not a synthesis of left and right. For leftists who want to be on guard against fascist infiltration, the kind of rhetoric, figures, and movement to look out for are those who criticize aspects of capitalism while defending private property, pouring scorn against actual socialist and workers’ movements, and calling for the purification of the existing order of ‘corrupt’ bourgeois elites. This is a fundamental issue of anti-fascist strategy. If fascism is a synthesis between the left and the right, the far left is a dubious ally against fascists. In fact, its radical critiques of capitalism and support for violent revolution make it susceptible to cross-over with fascism. If, however, fascism is a right-wing, capitalist movement, it is necessary to oppose capitalism as a whole to defeat fascism. Defense of “liberalism,” “democracy,” “tolerance” is insufficient; in fact it is liberals who are dubious allies, who are forced to side with fascists in certain scenarios to maintain capitalism. Seeing fascism as a form of counter-revolution leads to a strategy of alliance with workers’ and socialist movements, across tendencies, no matter how much we might hate each other sometimes (and we do).

 

Another major issue with Against the Fascist Creep is the “fusional”, “synthetic” nature of fascism tends to shatter upon closer examination. For instance, Ross describes the thought of Julius Evola as “a kind of mystique that animated the rhetorical framework of right-left syncretism—visions of Nordic gods on earth, mythical Arctic-born superraces, archaic spiritual signs transcending both science and Judeo-Christian ethics, and cosmic spiritual oaths of samurai loyalty.” But what about this is a synthesis between the left and the right, even just on the rhetorical plane? All of these aspects are quite classical, obvious right-wing, reactionary preoccupations. Or take Ross’s discussion of the battle of Seattle and the fight against the WTO. Ross is quite right to say many fascists cheered the left on here as a fighters against “globalization.” However, the fascist he cites as an example is not a clever, sneaky fusionist, but very obviously a fascist, talking about the protestors as “White people” revolting against “world Jewry.” No left-wing observer is going to have to consider for very long whether or not this man could be a worthwhile ally. And when it comes to fascists adopting the language of “self-determination” and “anti-imperialism” to ‘defend’ their goal of white nationalist states, Ross comes straight out and says this is just a lie. So it is unclear whether “fusion” actually goes deeper than opportunistic adoption of left-wing phrases.

For another example, let’s go back to exactly what Tucker Carlson has to say about corporations (emphases mine):

“There’s nothing free about this market,” Carlson said on Tucker Carlson Tonight. “A lot of these companies operate as monopolies. They hate markets. They use government regulation to crush competition. There’s nothing conservative about that, just as there’s nothing conservative about most big corporations. Just the opposite. They’re the backbone of the left. Pick a leftwing cause that you think is hurting the country. Check the donor list, and you’ll find the name of some corporation. Often many corporations. Corporate America enables the progressive lunacy you see every night on this show. They’re funding the revolution now in progress,” he added.

This is a very common fascist argument. In fact, it directly echoes the Sorelian arguments Landa highlights: modern capitalism is corrupt because it violates the ideas of the free market and private property; the middle class needs to revolt against both the ruling class and the working class, who are somehow united against the middle. This is why Marxist analyses of fascism always characterize it as particularly attractive to the ppetty-bourgeoisie. 

 There is plenty to criticize in interwar Marxist analyses of fascism—after all, fascism did actually rise to power in both Italy and Germany, so one cannot say that either the social democratic or the communist parties got antifascism really right. But Ross’s almost total dismissal of existing Marxist theories of fascism is flawed and sectarian. For example, Ross claims “[t]he Communist Party’s principle [sic] theorist, Antonio Gramsci, avoided joining a bloc of anarchists, liberals, and socialists, hoping that an armed working class would better fend off fascist squadristi without liberal or socialist leadership.” However, Behan, who is highly critical of the PCI’s sectarian attitude toward the Arditi del popolo, notes that Gramsci’s views “shifted significantly from his previous position of underestimating fascism and being relatively uninterested in anti-fascist work” and Ordine Nuovo, the publication of Gramsci’s faction, was far more supportive of the ADP than the ‘official’ PCI line. Futhermore, many rank-and-file Communists ignored their party’s analysis and participated in the ADP anyway.[xii] Ross’s book is written for an activist audience. By tossing aside Gramsci’s subtle and foundational analyses of fascism in one sentence, Ross turns his readers away from exploring a vital writer in the anti-fascist tradition.

Ross also claims that “Trotsky warned the KPD [German Communist Party] not to take fascism too seriously.” The footnote to this does not actually give a source for this, so I have no idea he is talking about, but this is a bizarre claim. Ross later pats Trotsky on the head for “realizing” fascism is not a puppet of the ruling class, but continues to insist fascism is “a uniquely revolutionary and oppositional collaboration between right and left.” Again, by mischaracterizing Trotsky’s writings, Ross encourages his readers to neglect serious Marxist analysis of fascism.

 

The strongest portion of the book deals with the connections between environmentalism and fascism. Ross’s analysis of fascist fetishization of “nature,” the “organic,” and “conservation” are fascinating. However, this is the exception that proves the rule. “Environmentalism” in itself is not a left-wing cause—it requires you to take no stance at all on human equality or on capitalism, after all. This example does not show that fascism incorporates left-wing thought; but, rather, that there are both right-wing and left-wing forms of environmentalism. The same is true of the sections on neopaganism and of musical subcultures.

 

As Ross attempts to analyze recent antifascist movements and give proscriptions for a way forward, the cracks in his analysis become apparent. He ends up lapsing into liberal ideas and obscuring the ways in which good liberals and democrats promote forms of racism that allow fascism to thrive.

A key example is his discussion of Charlie Hebdo. Ross obscures the centrality of state-sponsored and liberal forms of Islamophobia in generating oppression of Muslims in the West. Instead, he characterizes the “spirit of mass demonstrations in Paris” as calling for “peace, coexistence, freedom of speech.” Really? The demonstration led by the likes of Merkel, Cameron, and Netanyahu? Is this not worthy of mention? If one is looking at how racist and nationalist ideas invade the left, one must look at the French left’s embrace of Islamophobia in the name of liberalism and universalism.[xiii]

If the key question is how fascist ideas ‘creep’ into the mainstream, one must look at liberal ideas (“freedom of speech” in particular has become a rallying cry for fascists) with a clear eye as well. Thus, when Ross moves on to talk about how the German far-right group PEGIDA’s use of Charlie Hebdo, he misses the fundamental dynamic that allows far-right groups to profit so much from their use of Islamophobia.

This brings us back to Leen Dweik and Chelsea Clinton. If we ignore the prominence of liberal Islamophobia, if we ignore how the Democratic Party has been one of the main drivers of attacks on Muslims, if we ignore the prominent idea that Muslim immigrants need to be educated out of their essential anti-Semitism—how can we actually resist Islamophobia? Nor can we ignore that the state of Israel is, in itself, based on an eliminationist project against Palestine and Palestinians. Whatever happened to looking at Zionism from the standpoint of its victims? Instead, Ross ends up apologizing for Zionism—one of the most violent and racist state forms existing today—lining up with the oppressors against the oppressed.

 

What kind of anti-fascist politics does Against the Fascist Creep lead us to? One that sees the left as culpable for fascism; one that sees any kind of revolutionary politics as constantly vulnerable to fascist corruption; and one that sees any critique of bourgeois liberalism as giving aid and comfort to fascism. An alliance with liberalism against the left is not a totally necessary conclusion from the analysis presented in Against the Fascist Creep, but it is the most natural one. If you are looking for a political movement oppose fascism, and you’ve rejected the political left, what else is there? Liberalism.

However, fascism despises the left, whatever it calls itself—socialist, communist, social democratic, Marxist, anarchist, whatever—and any self-organization of the oppressed—women, qlgbt, racial and national minorities, whatever. But if fascism is a synthesis between the far left and the far right, the left becomes forever suspect, corrupt, and in need of purification of its ‘illiberal’ elements. You turn your suspicion to the very people who ought to be your allies, who are the best fighters against fascism, and the one fascists attacks en masse and without distinction. It is an ironic mirror of the sectarian ‘third period’ politics Ross condemns earlier in the book.

For a book published by an activist press for an activist audience, Against the Fascist Creep is noticeably short on tactics and strategy. The last chapter describes some anti-fascist initiatives, but does not evaluate the strengths or weaknesses of particular approaches. Nor does it draw out how the descriptions and theory of the previous chapters apply concretely to antifascist action today. It has some sensible suggestions about doxxing fascists, targeting their PayPal accounts, etc., but that’s about it. Also, these are tactics, not strategy. Ross’s chief demands revolve around vague proscriptions for “education,” “hope,” “mutual aid” and “solidarity.” These are all good ideas, but they are weak tea indeed against the rise of violent fascist movements.

 

In his public statements following Against the Fascist Creep, Ross has crept (sorry, I’m sorry) farther and farther right. This accelerated especially after a dust-up with Max Blumenthal et. al. about whether or not certain lefty pundits are red-brown agents. (My particular analysis: what we might call the ‘RT intellectual crew’ are shallow, tedious, and not to be trusted with regards to Russian foreign policy, but to call view them as red-brown agents of Russian destabilization efforts is conspiratorial and ridiculous.) An example is his recent article “From Exile to Dirtbag.” The bulk of the article is about the eXile, a magazine run by American expats Mark Ames and Matt Taibbi in 1990s Russia. Personally, I have nothing to dispute with Ross’s account of it: it was a horrible, misogynistic magazine that boosted genuine fascists like Eduard Limonov. But there is also not much new in this analysis of eXile/Ames/Taibbi—it’s been public knowledge for a while. I easily accessed information about it as a moderately-online high school student. What doesn’t hold up is Ross’s attempt to insist that the American left has been infiltrated by National Bolshevists.

“From Exile to Dirtbag” shows how Ross has moved significant to the right since he published Against the Facist Creep. For instance, in the book he is highly critical of the left’s orientation toward Euromaidan and Western involvement in the Ukrainian civil war. He discusses the fascists supporting Ukrainian nationalism as well as the ‘National Bolsheviks’ in the Donbass. However, the article only mentions the latter, while associating critiques of US intervention in Ukraine with the likes of Richard Spencer. He even goes so far as to defend NATO! If we are worried about fascist creep, surely we should be worried about painting American support for the far-right abroad and traditional American fears of Russian “subversion” in leftist colors?

The article is almost too transnational—or whether, it is transnational in the wrong way. There are, to be sure, real ties between the likes of Spencer and the likes of Dugin. But this hardly makes Russia a primary source of American fascism. Service in the U.S. military, or the police, or Border Patrol; right-wing churches; grandfathers and uncles with experience in past fascist movements; all of these things (as Ross’s own work suggests!) have been far more important in building cadres for American fascism.

 

A recent article published by Ross together with Shane Burley on the Christchurch attack also shows the inadequate nature of his solutions to fascism. Ross and Burley see the source of fascism as a “desperation” that “comes from within—not just the white nationalist movement but white communities themselves.” However, fascism is not just some form of irrational desperation from ignorant white people, as we have seen. It is a form of irrational desperation from ignorant white people that gains strength from mainstream forces, including liberalism and is often useful to the capitalist elite in preserving its own power. The murderous Islamophobia displayed at Christchurch does not derive just from marginal, alienated elements. It emerges straight out of the wars against Muslims and Arabs waged by the Western imperialist powers.

 

However, Shane and Burley characterize fascists as just resistant to “the conditions and possibilities of the modern world.” Without being accompanied with calls for fundamental structural change, this suggests that existing, modern, liberal capitalism is basically fine. Fascists are irrationally afraid of it, but they need to learn to accept it (and so, I guess, do the rest of us.)

 

So, can there be an anti-liberal anti-fascism? Not only can there be, but there must be. Not “anti-liberal” in the sense of rejecting and condemning the wide swaths of people who identify with “liberalism” against the right-wing because it is the main form of politics accessible to people that seems to stand for equality and tolerance. But “anti-liberal” in rejecting liberal capitalism and its structures and institutions, which sustain the society that produces fascists and leave us unable to truly resist them. We need a form of anti-fascism that does not start out from the premise that the revolutionary left is constantly at risk of collapsing into fascism. Instead, we need anti-fascism that understands fascism as a form of counter-revolution. Rather than fearing the radical potential of left-wing revolution, we should embrace it as our central inspiration as we fight against fascist and for a better world.

 

Works cited

 

Abromeit, John. “Transformations of Producerist Populism in Western Europe.” In Transformations of Populism in Europe and the Americas: History and Recent Tendencies, edited by John Abromeit, Gary Marotta, Bridget María Chesterton and York Norman. Bloomsbury: London/New York, 2016.

 

Behan, Tom. The Resistible Rise of Benito Mussolini. London: Bookmarks, 2003.

 

Landa, Ishay. The Apprentice’s Sorcerer: Liberal Tradition and Fascism. Leiden, The Netherlands: Koninklijke Brill NV, 2010.

 

Kitchen, Martin. Fascism. MacMillan: London, 1985.

 

Paxton, Robert O. The Anatomy of Fascism. Alfred A. Knopf: New York, 2004.

 

Ross, Alexander Reid. Against the Fascist Creep. Edinburgh: AK Press, 2017.

 

—-. “From Exile to Dirtbag: Edgelord politics and the rise of ‘National Bolshevism’ in the U.S.” 20 Jan. 2019, last accessed 2 April 2019.

https://medium.com/@areidross/from-exile-to-dirtbag-edgelord-geopolitics-and-the-rise-of-national-bolshevism-in-the-u-s-84822021b0e8

 

—- and Burley, Shane. “How to defeat the cretinous ‘great replacement’ theory at the heart of the Christchurch attack.” 18 Mar. 2019, last accessed 2 April 2019.

https://www.independent.co.uk/voices/christchurch-attack-new-zealand-shooting-brenton-tarrant-great-replacement-a8827966.html

 

Spriano, Paolo, trans. Gwyn A. Williams. The Occupation of the Factories: Italy, 1920. London: Pluto Press, 1975.

[i] I don’t have a paper copy of the book, so these citations will be messy; but what the hell, it’s not an academic paper. This quote is from the first page of the intro.

[ii] Yes, I am giving a nod to the dread “functionalist” Marxist explanations of fascism here. A bit more on this later.

[iii] In particular, his dust-ups with the Khalek/Blumenthal/Norton crew have been particularly unenlightening and tedious on all sides. An example is Ben Norton’s response. He calls Ross “a Eurocentric racist” for ignoring forms of fascism outside the imperialist countries, such as Hindutva in India. Discussing non-Euro-American forms of fascism is certainly necessary to a clear understanding of fascism, particularly now given events in Brazil and India. However, Norton does not explain how this actually disproves Ross’s claims. It’s a demagogic gesture, particularly as Norton was among those willing to minimize Gabbard’s Hindutva ties so she could Tell the Truth About Syria ™ on a national stage. He’s also wrong, as Ross connects imperialism and fascism in the very first chapter. Norton uses the citation of Sternhell, a Zionist, to ‘prove’ also claims Sternhell is a “Zionist” and therefore Ross’s citation of him proves his Zionist imperialism. Now, Ross is soft on Zionism, as we will see. However, Norton does not actually explain what is substantively wrong about Ross’s account; he simply looks at the first footnote and declares Ross an imperialist agent. This is part of a self-reinforcing loop in which two groups of journalist-pundits declare war on each other, with the flaws of each other reinforcing the other in their self-image, and allowing them to declare victory at one another’s hypocrisies and capitulations. In the end, one ends up with a great deal of information about American journalists’ tweets, funding, old blog posts, and sketchy friends, but very little about the actual world at large.

[iv] Landa, The Apprentice’s Sorcerer, 198-9.

[v] Abromeit, “Transformation of Producerist Populism in Western Europe,” 243.

[vi] Information about Mussolini and the factory occupations is from Spriano, Occupation of the Factories. The exact quote is from page 149.

[vii] Landa, Apprentice’s Sorcerer, 7. Unfortunately, however, (and ironically), Landa’s analysis falls into a similar trap of equating revolutionary opposition to the status quo with fascism. Landa draws a distinction between (good, democratic) “political” liberalism and (bad, undemocratic) “economic” liberalism. He sees fascism as an attempt by economic liberals to maintain free-market capitalism against working-class movements. He excuses socialists, including Leninists, from being opponents of democracy on the grounds that even Lenin advocated participation in bourgeois parliaments and defending democratic reforms. This is true, but it ignores that Lenin’s ultimate strategy was rupture with liberal democracy, which he saw as democratic only for the capitalists themselves, and toward proletarian democracy. Thus, while Landa is correct to argue capitalism is undemocratic and thus liberals are forced to turn to fascism in certain situations to maintain it, he ends up reinforcing the idea that attacks on liberal democracy are inherently reactionary.

[viii] Behan, Resistible Rise of Benito Mussolini, 42-43.

[ix] Paxton, Anatomy of Fascism, 58.

[x] Kitchen, Fascism, 48-49.

[xi]Kitchen, Fascism, 85-86. Kitchen ascribes fascism only to ‘late’ industrial capitalist states. This I think is wrong. He claims fascism needs “a powerful capitalist class, a large and organised working class with a potentially revolutionary ideology which calls for a radical restructuring of society, and a large petit bourgeoisie which is caught in the contradictions between capital and labour and is unable to find any way out of its social, economic and political dilemmas.” However, all of these conditions are met by today’s capitalism on a world scale. Many countries have weak national capitalists; but all countries are vulnerable to the intervention of powerful imperialist governments that are more than happy to suppress any restive oppressed group, outside “their” borders as well as inside them. It’s also worth noting that Global South these days does not at all equal ‘weak forms of capitalism.’ India and Brazil have rapidly-growing, combative working classes; restless peasantries; substantial middle classes that feel threatened from both above and below; and powerful local capitalists. So there is no puzzle that they include some of the largest fascist/fascist-like movements today. Fascism can also arise in response to revolutionary potential, as Kitchen states, and not necessarily an actual revolutionary movement—contrary to those who insist fascism is not a major threat i.e. in the US because there is no prominent revolutionary movement. Thus, I would suggest the development of a capitalist world economy means fascism is a latent possibility anywhere on the globe.

[xii] Behan, Resistible Rise of Benito Mussolini, 67-68.

[xiii] Another example are the absolutely goofy statements Ross makes about alleged Russian support of “separatism” in Western Europe. Ross blithely condemns Basque, Catalan, and Scottish independence movements as “ultra-nationalist origins and their deep traditional trends,” “national-anarchism, national syndicalism, and other forms of contemporary fascism.” There are certainly anti-immigrant parts of the Catalan independence movement, but this ignores how the forces on the ground have been led by the left. It sure isn’t the occupation of Fiume. It doesn’t make any sense to fear-monger about “separatism” while passing over the existence of the UK and Spanish states as if their existence was unproblematic. Surely the movements to be worried about right now are the British fascists waving the flag of St. George and the Spanish Franco fans performing the fascist salute in response to the Catalan independence vote?

 

[1] I don’t have a paper copy of the book, so these citations will be messy; but what the hell, it’s not an academic paper. This quote is from the first page of the intro.

[1] Yes, I am giving a nod to the dread “functionalist” Marxist explanations of fascism here. A bit more on this later.

[1] In particular, his dust-ups with the Khalek/Blumenthal/Norton crew have been particularly unenlightening and tedious on all sides. An example is Ben Norton’s response. He calls Ross “a Eurocentric racist” for ignoring forms of fascism outside the imperialist countries, such as Hindutva in India. Discussing non-Euro-American forms of fascism is certainly necessary to a clear understanding of fascism, particularly now given events in Brazil and India. However, Norton does not explain how this actually disproves Ross’s claims. It’s a demagogic gesture, particularly as Norton was among those willing to minimize Gabbard’s Hindutva ties so she could Tell the Truth About Syria ™ on a national stage. He’s also wrong, as Ross connects imperialism and fascism in the very first chapter. Norton uses the citation of Sternhell, a Zionist, to ‘prove’ also claims Sternhell is a “Zionist” and therefore Ross’s citation of him proves his Zionist imperialism. Now, Ross is soft on Zionism, as we will see. However, Norton does not actually explain what is substantively wrong about Ross’s account; he simply looks at the first footnote and declares Ross an imperialist agent. This is part of a self-reinforcing loop in which two groups of journalist-pundits declare war on each other, with the flaws of each other reinforcing the other in their self-image, and allowing them to declare victory at one another’s hypocrisies and capitulations. In the end, one ends up with a great deal of information about American journalists’ tweets, funding, old blog posts, and sketchy friends, but very little about the actual world at large.

[1] Landa, The Apprentice’s Sorcerer, 198-9.

[1] Abromeit, “Transformation of Producerist Populism in Western Europe,” 243.

[1] Information about Mussolini and the factory occupations is from Spriano, Occupation of the Factories. The exact quote is from page 149.

[1] Landa, Apprentice’s Sorcerer, 7. Unfortunately, however, (and ironically), Landa’s analysis falls into a similar trap of equating revolutionary opposition to the status quo with fascism. Landa draws a distinction between (good, democratic) “political” liberalism and (bad, undemocratic) “economic” liberalism. He sees fascism as an attempt by economic liberals to maintain free-market capitalism against working-class movements. He excuses socialists, including Leninists, from being opponents of democracy on the grounds that even Lenin advocated participation in bourgeois parliaments and defending democratic reforms. This is true, but it ignores that Lenin’s ultimate strategy was rupture with liberal democracy, which he saw as democratic only for the capitalists themselves, and toward proletarian democracy. Thus, while Landa is correct to argue capitalism is undemocratic and thus liberals are forced to turn to fascism in certain situations to maintain it, he ends up reinforcing the idea that attacks on liberal democracy are inherently reactionary.

[1] Behan, Resistible Rise of Benito Mussolini, 42-43.

[1] Paxton, Anatomy of Fascism, 58.

[1] Kitchen, Fascism, 48-49.

[1]Kitchen, Fascism, 85-86. Kitchen ascribes fascism only to ‘late’ industrial capitalist states. This I think is wrong. He claims fascism needs “a powerful capitalist class, a large and organised working class with a potentially revolutionary ideology which calls for a radical restructuring of society, and a large petit bourgeoisie which is caught in the contradictions between capital and labour and is unable to find any way out of its social, economic and political dilemmas.” However, all of these conditions are met by today’s capitalism on a world scale. Many countries have weak national capitalists; but all countries are vulnerable to the intervention of powerful imperialist governments that are more than happy to suppress any restive oppressed group, outside “their” borders as well as inside them. It’s also worth noting that Global South these days does not at all equal ‘weak forms of capitalism.’ India and Brazil have rapidly-growing, combative working classes; restless peasantries; substantial middle classes that feel threatened from both above and below; and powerful local capitalists. So there is no puzzle that they include some of the largest fascist/fascist-like movements today. Fascism can also arise in response to revolutionary potential, as Kitchen states, and not necessarily an actual revolutionary movement—contrary to those who insist fascism is not a major threat i.e. in the US because there is no prominent revolutionary movement. Thus, I would suggest the development of a capitalist world economy means fascism is a latent possibility anywhere on the globe.

[1] Behan, Resistible Rise of Benito Mussolini, 67-68.

[1] Another example are the absolutely goofy statements Ross makes about alleged Russian support of “separatism” in Western Europe. Ross blithely condemns Basque, Catalan, and Scottish independence movements as “ultra-nationalist origins and their deep traditional trends,” “national-anarchism, national syndicalism, and other forms of contemporary fascism.” There are certainly anti-immigrant parts of the Catalan independence movement, but this ignores how the forces on the ground have been led by the left. It sure isn’t the occupation of Fiume. It doesn’t make any sense to fear-monger about “separatism” while passing over the existence of the UK and Spanish states as if their existence was unproblematic. Surely the movements to be worried about right now are the British fascists waving the flag of St. George and the Spanish Franco fans performing the fascist salute in response to the Catalan independence vote?