by Sojourner Truth Organization
Urgent Tasks No. 13/Fascism in the U.S.?

1. Central to STO's approach to the question of fascism has always been its understanding of the historic operation of the white-skin privilege system as a means of social control over white workers as well as people of color, and the view that so long as that system continued to function through the traditional institutions, the bourgeoisie as a class would have no reason to turn to fascism to maintain its rule. We affirm the above insight as having been valid and useful in steering STO on a course opposed to all forms of popular front reformism. However, we failed to appreciate fully the complexities of white supremacy, and in particular the fact that, once established, it developed a life of its own not entirely under the control of the bourgeoisie. This aspect, coupled with a new situation in which white supremacist ideology has become an important weapon in the revival of the Ku Klux Klan and the Nazis, demonstrates the inadequacy of our previous writings.

2. Among the features that define the new situation are: (a) the loss of U.S. capitalism's overriding dominance within the world capitalist system; (b) an economic crisis that is leading to the decay of certain areas of industrial activity traditionally the center of capitalist strength; (c) a social crisis that has led to a rapid decline in popular loyalty to traditional institutions — without the development of a popular vision of the revolutionary way out of the crisis. If the communist movement does succeed in gaining a following among the workers, sectors of the bourgeoisie will probably strengthen their backing of fascist movements.

3. Fascism is a totalitarian dictatorship coming to power through a mass movement of sectors of the dispossessed that breaks up the traditional institutions of bourgeois control and brings about important structural changes both within the ruling class and in the mode of exploitation while leaving intact the relations characteristic of a class society in the modern epoch.

4. To understand fascism as growing out of the crises endemic to capitalism is not to say that it is a simple tool of the capitalist class. One important element in fascism is its autonomous character, expressed in a mass movement among sectors of the population who have been dislocated by the capitalist crisis and alienated from the traditional institutions of conciliation and repression. Fascism contains an anti-capitalist "revolutionary" side that is not reducible to simple demagogy.

5. To point out the autonomous aspect of fascism is not to deny its intimate connections with the needs of the capitalist class. The growth of state repression and extra-legal right-wing organizations, tolerated and often covertly assisted by the state, while not fascist in itself, is necessary for the implementation of bourgeois policy and serves to ease the way for fascism. Certain sectors of the bourgeoisie may find a fascist movement useful in enhancing their own power within the ruling class (to discover, too late, that their ox, too, will be gored). And opportunism within the working class, which depends on the bourgeoisie for its authority and whose main form here is not European-style social democracy or revisionism but white labor reformism, while not fascist itself and indeed slated to be among the first victims of triumphant fascism, nevertheless prepares the way for fascism both by providing legitimacy to bourgeois policy and by offering the people only more of the same reformist politics which they have already found wanting.

6. Although no single, hegemonic fascist movement can yet be said to have emerged, there exist a number of groupings which contain some of the elements of such a movement. The traditional conservatives, who have increasingly adopted "populist" rhetoric, the far-right para-military patriotic organizations, the anti-busing and anti-abortion activists, the various Klan organizations, some of whom have always contained a "pro-labor" ingredient, the U.S. Labor Party, the Nazi Party — all of these are undergoing a process of differentiation, evolution and regroupment that may lead to the emergence of a single fascist center. The Klan and Nazi movements have achieved a higher degree of ideological unity and practical military collaboration than their organizational fragmentation would indicate. The most immediately dangerous among the above-named groupings is the Ku Klux Klan, owing to its para-military character and its deep roots in American tradition.

7. In addition to the primary anti-Black and other racist manifestations, virulent anti-Jewish policies, sometimes masquerading as anti-Zionism, are important unifying ideological features of the new fascists, as in the past. The denial of the Nazi Holocaust (propagated by the very organizations that propose exterminating Jews and people of color) is an important propaganda front, and needs to be countered. This propaganda offensive has been accompanied by a wave of anti-Semitic terror unequaled in recent years. The virulence of this anti-Semitic campaign often gets boosted demagogically with a bogus expression of sympathy for the plight of the Palestinian people. Despite the obvious difficulties, the anti-fascist movement will need to expose and vigorously fight the new wave of anti-Semitism, while never wavering on Palestine.

8. To the extent that fascism becomes a mass movement, and to the extent that revolution is not an immediate possibility, the revolutionary organizations must adopt the stance of the united front, which is a defensive posture aimed at achieving an alliance for the sole purpose of stopping the fascist advance. Within that alliance, however, it is necessary to criticize certain incorrect approaches which currently hold sway. Foremost among these are: first, the view that it is possible to defeat fascism through reliance on liberal, constitutional sectors of the bourgeoisie and their representatives in the popular movement; second, the view that holds fascism and the bourgeois state to be identical, therefore overlooking the autonomous character of the fascist movement which is an important source of its dangerous potential.

9. Key to a successful struggle against fascism is the forging of a left pole within the broad united front, distinguished by the following features: (a) it recognizes the organic connection between fascism and "ordinary" bourgeois rule and carries out struggles in a way that reveals the connection, particularly challenging the ways in which white supremacy is reflected in the general repression — cutbacks in social services, inner-city plant shutdowns, etc.; (b) while defending parliamentary institutions, trade unions, etc., against fascist attacks, it poses a total revolutionary alternative to both the vision of the fascists and the present hegemonic view of bourgeois society; (c) it is able to fight the fascists militarily, through mass, armed confrontations and disruptions of fascist military activity.

adopted by the general membership meeting, April 1981

by Noel Ignatin

The theses published here were adopted by the general membership of the Sojourner Truth Organization at a meeting in April 1981. Thus, unlike many articles that appear in Urgent Tasks, they represent "official" STO line. The theses as finally adopted were the product of a fairly long process of discussion and development, going back, in the case of some individuals, to before the founding of STO. In this article, I shall attempt to elaborate some of the ideas expressed in the theses, and discuss them in relation to other ideas which were rejected. Although it is probably inevitable that, in this article, I place my own "shading" on the theses, I shall try as much as possible to avoid doing so. My purpose here is to explain and defend the themes that separate STO from other organizations on the left.[*]

The most direct formulation of STO's traditional position is probably contained in Don Hamerquist's pamphlet, "Fascism in the U.S.?" where it states: ". . . there is little likelihood that the ruling class will resort to fascism to 'maintain social control' over the working class as a whole while white supremacy is doing such an admirable job."

Since fascism is a dangerous weapon for those wielding it, the bourgeoisie will not choose to take it up so long as other, more ordinary methods of social control are still performing adequately. In Europe, the "ordinary" method was social democracy, the tying of a section of the working class to capital through the influence of reformism. In the U.S. this dynamic takes the form of white supremacy, maintained by the white-skin privilege, which, while by no means eliminating conflict between capitalists and white labor, confines the struggle to limits acceptable to capital as a whole by preventing the struggle of white workers from advancing beyond group interests to class interests. Contrary to those who hold that democracy for white North Americans depends on its denial to people of color inside and outside U.S. borders, STO asserts the reverse: that the ability of U.S. imperialism to oppress and plunder people of color in this country and around the world depends on the maintenance of at least the forms of democracy for white people, including white workers, as a means of ensuring their support for its aggressive and reactionary policies everywhere.

This theme has been put forward and elaborated in any number of places, and was specifically affirmed in the first thesis. The problem comes with the tendency to regard as static the bourgeoisie's policy of basing its rule on the white-skin privilege system, and to fail to see that the implementation of that policy leads to the creation of certain conditions which undermine its effectiveness.

In the pamphlet by Don Hamerquist quoted earlier, it states, "So long as the bulk of the white working class sees its interests mainly in terms of skin color, not class position, the likelihood of fascist rule being extended to the society as a whole is minimal." ! At first glance, this sentence appears as simply a restatement of the one quoted earlier and affirmed in the theses, but a closer look reveals that not to be the case. The earlier statement says that the ruling class (I take that to mean bourgeois class as a whole) will not opt for fascism — not the same thing as saying that the chances of fascism coming to power are minimal.

The bourgeois policy depends both on the continued existence of white supremacy and its confinement within limits which must be continually redefined but which nevertheless are real at any given moment. In the period following the overthrow of Reconstruction, bourgeois policy called for the disfranchisement of the former slaves and their restriction to the status of agricultural and service workers. In the years during and after World War I, the bourgeoisie sought to use Black workers as unskilled laborers in certain mass production industries, steel and meatpacking in particular. Later on, in the post-World War II expansion, the bourgeoisie needed Black labor on the assembly line and the mass production machines in auto, rubber, etc. This required a new definition of the status of the Black worker as semiskilled labor.

In no case were the new limits the simple consequence of a decision made by the executive committee of the ruling class, but were the result of a complicated struggle involving different factions of the ruling class, Black labor, and white workers. For instance, there were a number of strikes of white workers in the southern railroads during the last decades of the nineteenth century, strikes whose aim was to drive the Black engineers and firemen off the trains and maintain the industry as a white preserve. Of course, in that case, the bourgeoisie as a whole — as distinct from the owners of the rail lines affected — was only too happy to accept the "closed shop" sought by white labor, as it reinforced bourgeois hegemony in general and wasn't very costly in terms of labor needs in a particular industry. Almost a century later, the presence or absence of Black workers in different maintenance trades in the steel industry, which varied from mill to mill, was not a matter of great concern to the ruling class as a whole, and would be determined by the amount of pressure each side brought to bear in a specific situation. So long as the principle of "white first" was upheld, it made little difference to the bourgeoisie how the matter was resolved in each specific situation.

Two points need to be stressed here: first, that white supremacy originated in bourgeois policy, not in the heads of any sector of workers, and had to be imposed on the entire working class; second, that for its implementation, it depended and continues to depend on the support of white workers, which requires extending to them a certain voice in determining how the general policy is carried out.

To repeat, in general in the past the adjustment of the white supremacist contract posed little problem to the bourgeoisie as a class, whatever problems it may have posed to the managers of any particular industry or enterprise. But what if this shall no longer be the case? What if the masses of white workers, organized in support of the principle of white first, decide to go beyond the limits required by capital, go beyond them to a degree that is not acceptable to capital, and succeed in imposing their will on capital?

This is the precise point that was not taken up by STO's traditional treatment of the operation of the white-skin privilege system. It can no longer be ignored. For three centuries now, white workers have been mobilized behind bourgeois race policies. They have been encouraged to defend their interests as "white workers" rather than as workers, have been rewarded for doing so and been savagely punished on the rare occasions when they have set aside their whiteness and extended the hand of class solidarity to Black labor.

At the present moment, the entire working class, including those sectors of European descent, is facing a crisis of unprecedented proportions. Some of its features are enumerated in our second thesis; they could be formulated more dramatically without exceeding the bounds of truth. People in such a situation will not be satisfied with routine activity. They will take action in ways that challenge the most fundamental assumptions of the society in which they live. In doing so, they will begin with the attitudes that have been developed throughout their history and have made them what they are today. While we would never assert that white racism is the only determinant of white workers' behavior, neither do we regard it as something that they will spontaneously shed in the course of militant struggles against hard times. The dictatorship of the white proletariat, as a slogan, has more than a small chance of attracting a popular following in the coming period. Could a movement organized around such a slogan, or some variant of it, exercise an influence on official policy? Could it share power? Could it take power on its own? Anyone who knows the United States knows that none of these questions can be answered easily in the negative.

The third thesis is our attempt to provide a capsule definition of fascism. It is, of course, meant to be counterposed to the well-known Comintern definition, "the open terrorist dictatorship of the most reactionary, most chauvinistic and most imperialist elements of finance capital." Two points are stressed here: the role of a mass movement involving sectors of the dispossessed in bringing fascism to power (a point elaborated in the following thesis) and the fact that fascism in power "brings about important structural changes both within the ruling class and in the mode of exploitation. . . ." One point was left deliberately vague: is fascism capitalism or does it represent a new form of class society based on the appropriation of a surplus product through some mechanism other than the value form? Fascism tends to introduce, in place of the free market and competition between blocks of capital, state-directed and even state-owned industry functioning through a planned economy. It tends to introduce, in place of free labor exploited through the wage system, a labor force exploited by means of direct compulsion. Can such a society, which was not fully realized in any of the fascist countries but which is a theoretical possibility, still be considered capitalist? It is not a matter of which swear word one chooses to apply to an evil way of life, but a matter of determining whether such a society would operate according to the laws of capitalism, in particular the law of value and the law of the tendency of the falling rate of profit. At least one writer[**] has labeled the system "trans-capitalist," while maintaining that in Germany the transcending elements were "encapsulated" in capitalism. This whole question of trans-capitalist elements comes up again in attempting an analysis of Soviet society. Some of the fascists themselves were and are aware of the parallels between the two: there was a wing of German Nazism — not the dominant wing, it is true — that sought an accord with Russia, not simply for military and geo-political reasons but because they recognized a convergence of the two systems. In Britain today there is one avowedly fascist group that is pro-Soviet, while in the U.S. the most theoretically inclined of the fascist publicists are by no means anti-Soviet.

To return to something mentioned earlier: what would be the difference between the "dictatorship of the white proletariat" and the white labor opportunism that has characterized so much of U.S. history? The difference is between reformism and "revolution." Fascism in the U.S., coming to power on the crest of a movement that promised a "revolution of the common (white) man," could quite conceivably take serious measures against individual bourgeois or even against the bourgeoisie as a class. The Ku Klux Klan has always billed itself as the representative of the poor whites. Its programs have sought to embody that conception. (That is why those who attack the KKK as always "anti-union" are so far off the mark.) Up to now, the Klan and similar groups have been subordinated to bourgeois policy. But that will not always necessarily be the case. Fascism in power in the U.S. will be both more genocidal against people of color and more radical in its attacks on capital than anything seen so far. What we are talking about is the dialectic in operation. Bourgeois rule gives rise to the elements of its own negation. Socialism is one possible negation. It is not the only one.

An example which may illuminate this point: in 1922, white South African miners struck against the mine operators' attempts to bring in low-paid Black labor to cut wages in the mines. The white miners, instead of organizing the Blacks into the union to fight along with the rest, sought to exclude them from the industry altogether. This strike was extremely militant, and led to the formation of Soviets (!) in the mining districts. At one point the struggle grew so intense that the South African government dropped explosive shells from airplanes onto the miners' settlements; the only similar case I know of the capitalists bombing workers from the air in a labor dispute was a few years earlier during a miners' strike in West Virginia. The South African miners were defeated, but the conflict led to the establishment of a new political accord which extended monopoly job control in certain industries to the white workers, and their incorporation into the process of shaping South African labor policies. The miners were defeated by superior force. Was their defeat inevitable? More to the point, could a similar situation arise where the outcome was different? And could one find a better term than fascism to apply to a regime organized around white supremacist Soviets?

It is well known that German Nazism contained a radical wing that took seriously the platform of anti-capitalism. Its slogan was: there can be no nationalism without socialism. The radical wing of Nazism was defeated by Hitler, in response to the demands of the big bourgeoisie, which made its defeat a condition for his being permitted to hold power. In that case, the big bourgeoisie was strong enough to impose its will on the fascist mob. But — and this is the point I keep stressing — such an outcome is not necessarily determined in advance. If the bourgeoisie is weaker, if the society is in greater crisis, if the mob is less disciplined by the fascist party. . . .

Conditions in Germany and elsewhere were such that fascism could only come to power in coalition with a sector of the bourgeoisie. In that fact lies the explanation for the vital role of anti-Semitism in the fascist ideology. Anti-Semitism provides a mythical ruling class target for the fascist attacks, that permits the fascist party to be radical without directly confronting the entire capitalist class. Attacks on "usurers" and "war profiteers" served the same purpose, especially when linked with the attacks on the Jews. It proved particularly effective in Germany, given the long tradition of anti-Semitism there and the historical role of the Jews in the evolution of the German nation. An entirely different situation prevailed in Italy, where anti-Semitism played no significant role in the fascist seizure of power or in Mussolini's government. (Even in Germany, as at least one observer[†] has pointed out, many people became anti-Semitic because they supported the Nazi program, not the other way around.)

Anti-Semitism serves the same purpose here that it did in Germany. Whether it will be as necessary here will depend, in large part, on the extent to which fascism is tied to one or another wing of capital. To the extent that fascism establishes its independence from the bourgeoisie as a whole, to that extent it is likely that anti-Semitism will diminish in importance within the fascist program, although since it has already developed a life of its own, it may well continue as an ingredient of fascist ideology.

The last two theses deal with the principles that should guide the anti-fascist movement. It is necessary to bear in mind the relation between fascism and official policy. At times the two are complementary, at other times contradictory. Fascism, as has been pointed out, has its roots in official bourgeois race policies. In that sense it is complementary to official policy, reinforces it, etc. But at the same time it contradicts official policy and sets itself up as a genuine opposition and alternative to it. Fascism draws strength from the general direction of official policy, and from the inconsistency, incompleteness and partial character of that policy. That is why it cannot be said that every blow against fascism weakens official bourgeois policy, or that every blow against official bourgeois policy weakens fascism.

An example of this complex relation can be seen in the busing question. When official government policy is openly anti-integration, the fascists gain legitimacy, but at the same time lose some of their distinctiveness. A few years ago, when official government policy was nominally pro-integration, the fascists found it easy to distinguish themselves from the ordinary conservatives, but at the same time were more isolated than they are now. From conservatism to fascism there is both a continuum and a break, and it is necessary to keep both in mind.

STO considers it necessary to oppose both fascism and official government policy, and to do so in such a way that weakening one does not thereby result in strengthening the other. We question whether it is possible to accomplish the end by directing the same tactics against both enemies, or by attempting to wage the struggle against both through the same organizational framework.


*Those who wish to know more about the history of the discussion should read, along with this article, "Fascism in the U.S.? by Don Hamerquist, published as a pamphlet by STO; "Fascism: Some Common Misconceptions" by this writer, published in Urgent Tasks Number 4; the exchange of letters between Dan Robie and this writer, published in Urgent Tasks Number 9; "Fascism: Then and Now" by Joe Acero, published in Urgent Tasks Number 11; and the special issue of the discussion bulletin on fascism and the Ku Klux Klan, all of which are available from STO, P. O. Box 8493, Chicago, IL 60680.[return to text]

**Alfred Sohn-Rethel, Economy and Class Structure of German Fascism, CSE Books, London, 1978, page 30.[return to text]

†William Sheridan Allen, The Nazi Seizure of Power: The Experience of a Single German Town 1930-35, Quadrangle Books, Chicago, 1965.[return to text]

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