Hitler’s Election as Metaphor for the 2020 Election

A Bad Argument for Supporting Biden for President

by Wayne Price, ASR 81

In the debates among leftists over the 2020 elections, one particular historical argument has been raised. It has been cited repeatedly by Noam Chomsky, among others, to argue why radicals should vote for Joseph Biden, despite his flaws. Chomsky has asserted, “What led to the rise of Hitler was the decision of the huge Communist Party to condemn the labor-based Socialists as ‘social fascists,’ not different from the Nazis, and to refuse to join with them in barring the Nazis from political power.” This is similar, he claims, to “the behavior of some of the left” which opposes voting for Democrats today.
(I am not interested in discussing here how individual radicals should vote or not vote. My question is what radicals should advocate be done by organizations and large groups of people, such as unions, the African-American community, Latinx, feminists, LGBTQ people, organized environmentalists, etc. — whether to support bourgeois politicians or to put efforts into non-electoral activities.)
What is Chomsky referring to? In the early 1930s in Germany, popular support for Hitler’s Nazi Party had been exploding. They won a third of the votes to the Reichstag (parliament). Their uniformed thugs marched in the streets, beat up leftwing newspaper sellers and speakers, broke up union meetings, and murdered prominent socialists. Big business began to pour money into the Nazi coffers. The police did little to stop them and judges gave them slaps on the wrist. The issue was not “free speech for Nazis” but how to stop their violent rise to power.
The Social Democratic Party (“democratic socialist” or reformist state socialist) was the largest single party in the Reichstag. Unlike today’s social democratic parties, it still claimed to stand for a new society of socialism. The Communist Party (Stalinist or pseudo-revolutionary state socialist) was smaller but still a large party, and held most of the revolutionary-minded workers. Under the orders of Stalin, in 1928 the Communist International had adopted a new analysis. This claimed that the world was in a new period (the “Third Period” since World War I) in which revolution was imminent. The Communist Parties would soon lead the workers in world revolution. All other parties were varieties of fascism. Bourgeois parliamentary democracy was the same as fascism. Conservative and liberal parties were fascist. The Social Democratic Party was “social-fascist.” Anarchists were “anarcho-fascists.” There was no point in trying to work with the social democrats, since they were just as bad as the Nazis and maybe worse. In fact, the Communists allied with the Nazis against a Social Democratic regional government in a referendum. This was an international program; in New York City, Communist Party members assaulted a Socialist Party meeting at Madison Square Garden.
Stalin declared, “Fascism is the militant organization of the bourgeoisie which bases itself on the active support of the Social Democracy. Objectively, Social Democracy is the moderate wing of fascism. … These organizations [fascists and social democrats] do not contradict but supplement one another. They are not antipodes [opposites] but twins.” The Communists assured the workers that there was no need to worry about the Nazis coming to power, because the Communists were sure to take power soon after. Their crazy-optimistic slogan was, “After Hitler, us!”
It was true that the capitalist class ruled under both bourgeois parliamentary democracy and under fascist totalitarianism. In either case, they ran their businesses and squeezed profits out of their workers. The governments supported them in this. They did not run the governments directly but had more-or-less influence on the regimes.
But what was important for the workers was not the extent of the freedom held by big businesspeople. What really mattered was the beginnings of working class democracy. Even under bourgeois democracy, the workers still had their unions, their political parties, their newspapers, their halls, their clubs, and even their socialist bars and restaurants. The Social Democratic Party had no intention of making a revolution for socialism. But it had every interest in holding on to these institutions, which required rejecting fascism. Fascism would—and did—destroy all these working class institutions. While the reformist state socialists may be accused of not fighting fascism, they could not be “the moderate wing of fascism”!
This was pointed out at the time by Leon Trotsky, in a series of pamphlets and essays. Formerly a leader of the Russian Revolution and the Soviet Union, Trotsky had been expelled from the Communist International and exiled from the Soviet Union by Stalin. He had few followers in Germany and little influence. But whatever Trotsky’s failings overall (I am not a Trotskyist), he persistently called on the Communist workers to give up the crazed analysis of their Stalinist leadership. He called on them to offer an alliance with the Social Democrats, a “United Front” against the Nazis. This was not to be a political merger or electoral bloc, but a fighting coalition. Coordinating activities through joint committees, they should defend each other from Nazi attacks, drive the Nazis from the streets, break up their meetings, and close their halls. This was a practical program which might have kept Hitler from taking power—and might have led further in a revolutionary direction.
As we know, this was not done. The Stalinists stuck to their insane program. The Nazis came to power and destroyed all working class and democratic institutions, killing thousands and then millions. (It is worth remembering this when present-day Stalinists tell us how wonderful Stalin was since he “led” the Soviet Union in beating Hitler during World War II. They leave out Stalin’s contribution to Hitler’s taking power in the first place.)
Does this then support the argument of Chomsky and others that the anti-electoral left is repeating the errors of the German Communist Party of the thirties?

Anarchists Fight Fascism

But first I will go over a less well-known episode in radical history. This was the rise of the Fascist Party to power in Italy, and the anarchist struggle to prevent this.
In Italy in the 1920s, right-wing forces organized gangs of mostly World War I veterans. Benito Mussolini organized them into his Fascist Party, with subsidies from Italian business. He sent them into towns and cities to attack union halls, workers’ party headquarters, and left-wing gatherings—breaking them up, beating up their members, and killing leaders, establishing a reign of terror.
At the time, the anarchists, while a minority of the left, dominated an anarcho-syndicalist union federation. Together with the Arditi del Popolo (people’s commandos). they called for unity in action of the left. They proposed to physically combat the Fascists, to defend workers’ institutions, and to drive the Fascists off the streets. In a number of cities they won fierce battles with the Fascists. For a time, they had support from Socialist and Communist workers and from radical republicans (revolutionary anti-monarchists).
However, they were undermined by the left parties. The Communists were then led by Amedeo Bordiga, an authoritarian ultra-sectarian. Communist members were ordered not to work in any organization they could not control. He denounced the very idea of a United Front. (He was expelled from the Communist International in 1930, although his ideas were revived in Third-Period Stalinism.)
However, it is important to also point out the behavior of the Italian Socialist Party (social democratic), which also rejected any United Front against Fascism. It called on the government to control the Fascists. Cravenly it disarmed itself by agreeing to a so-called Pact of Pacification, signed with the Fascists in August 1921. Of course Mussolini felt free to ignore this “pact.” Without effective opposition from the workers’ parties and unions, but with support from the big bourgeoisie, the church, and the king, the Fascists were able to take power and eventually establish a murderous totalitarian state—serving as a model for Hitler.
This little history exposes what is wrong with Chomsky’s historical metaphor. When looking at the rise of Hitler (and before him, of Mussolini) it is not enough to blame only “the decision[s] of the huge Communist Party.” There were also decisions of the even huger Social Democratic parties. What did they have to contribute to the debacle? When Chomsky says that the Stalinists “refuse[d] to join with” the Social Democrats, it implies that the reformists were willing to join with the Communists in stopping the fascists. But this was not the case.

The German Social Democratic Party

Rather than preparing to fight the Nazis, the Social Democrats followed a completely legalistic policy. They ran in elections and built up their party and union bureaucracies. They tried to take the Nazis to court for illegal actions! They did have an armed workers’ force, but it was kept in the background and never used. They did not understand that the Nazis were not just another political party and that the crisis was not just another political crisis.
In 1932, there was a decisive national election for president. The Social Democrats decided to back the old reactionary-monarchist general, Paul von Hindenberg, as the lesser (nonfascist) evil. Their slogan was “Smash Hitler, Elect Hindenberg!” Hitler lost and von Hindenberg won! But the economic and political crises continued. After some maneuvering, Hindenberg appointed Hitler as chancellor, which began Nazi rule. Hindenberg was not a Nazi; he assumed that power would calm down the irresponsible Nazis, who were a “lesser evil” for him. The Germans never gave the Nazis a majority of the vote, yet they took power.
What did the Social Democrats do? They still tried to rely on legalistic means. They voted in the Reichstag for the proposed Nazi foreign policy — before they were all rounded up. The social democratic unions cut all ties with the party and offered to work with the Nazis — until they were seized by the Nazi state.
The Communists of Germany and their leadership in Russia never admitted to having made mistakes. But in practice, after a few years, in 1935 they abandoned their super-left program. Indeed, they jumped over the United Front of workers’ parties (which they had recently called a capitulation to fascism). Instead they sought to build “Popular Fronts.” These were alliances among not only socialist and communist workers’ parties, but also with a wing of the capitalist class. In France, this meant allying with the Radical Party (really mildly liberal). In Spain, with the loyalist Republicans. In the U.S.A., it meant supporting Franklyn Roosevelt’s Democratic Party. Of course, an alliance with a pro-capitalist party meant that the Popular Front could not oppose capitalism or the alliance would end. If the workers and peasants, in a revolutionary time, tried to go beyond capitalism, to make a socialist insurrection, then the Communists would have to stop them, by force if necessary. (Chomsky has written a number of times about how the Stalinists repressed the revolutionary workers in Spain in the thirties.) Worse, in Spain the large anarchist organization and its union federation betrayed their program and also joined the Popular Front government. This was except for a minority of revolutionary anarchists, including the Friends of Durruti Group.
In every one of these situations, from Italy to Germany to France and Spain and the U.S., the policy of allying with — of supporting — liberal capitalist politicians resulted in catastrophe for the working class, for all oppressed people, for the organized left, and for the world.

Lessons of the Hitler Metaphor

The problem in the 1930s was not just that the Communists were ultra-sectarian. It was also that the Socialists were reformist, legalistic, and sought alliances with moderate capitalists. In 1932 the situation was dire. Society was in a deep crisis where the alternatives were revolution or Nazism. Even then, choosing a “lesser evil,” and supporting a capitalist did not work. The Marxist Hal Draper concludes, “1932 is the classic case of the Lesser Evil, because even when the stakes were this high, even then voting for the Lesser Evil meant historic disaster.”
For years, the left (unions, African-Americans, progressive activists, etc.) has overwhelmingly endorsed the “lesser evil” of Democratic candidates. Sometimes these won and sometimes the greater-evil Republicans won. But as a result, the overall direction of both parties has been to the right. The Republicans, in particular, have became far-right, with a fascist element. As Obama was followed by Trump, even worse than G.W. Bush, so Biden is likely to be followed by another far-right politician, even worse than Trump. Over time, lesser-evilism does not work. For unions and other popular movements, placing their hopes and giving their support to “the lesser evil” political parties has proven to be a dead end.
As for individuals, it’s what you do between elections that count; neither voting nor non-voting is enough, activity is necessary — speaking, writing, organizing, mobilizing, marching, in communities, unions, workplaces, schools, and everywhere. The massive protests around the police and racism have shown a way to struggle, a way of direct action, in the streets, and outside the limits of the voting booth and the official parties. If it spreads to labor upheavals in workplaces and neighborhoods, it may upset the whole oppressive society. This is the way to go.

100 years of anarcho-syndicalism in Spain

by CNT,  translated by Pat Murtagh, ASR 53 (2010)

On November 1, 1910, in Barcelona’s Círculo de Bellas Artes, the CNT (National Confederation of Labor) was constituted. This organization, heir to the Spanish region of the 1st International (1870), was born from within the labor movement itself as the first independent trade union in this country.

Assuming the international slogan “the emancipation of the workers will be the work of the workers themselves, or it will not be,” the CNT made itself the repository of that popular rebellion which, like a subterranean stream, opposed power over the length of time, to emerge triumphant at specific times, from the Egyptian Middle Kingdom to the French Revolution, the origin of the unique historical processes in which humanity obviously advanced along the path of freedom, justice, equality, dignity and progress.

Upon the simple agreement to create a labor organization independent from the political, religious and economic powers as a prerequisite for improving the living conditions of the workers through to the end of exploitation, the CNT began its anarcho-syndicalist activity. In a few years it brought together most of the labor movement with significant social and economic advances that are now an invaluable legacy for today’s society.

The work day of eight hours, the work week of thirty-six hours, the elimination of child labor, equality of women and incorporation into daily life of values such as solidarity, federalism, ecology, feminism, free love, anti-militarism, atheism … so in vogue today, are part of that legacy that reached its zenith in the Social Revolution of 1936, when the utopia – libertarian communism – transformed everyone’s daily life in all the liberated territories.

The reaction of international capitalism enabled Franco’s fascist army to turn that revolutionary dream into a nightmare of hundreds of thousands of people persecuted, murdered and disappeared after the victorious coup in 1939. But not one of the culprits – all known, some active politicians – of that regime of terror, one of the most murderous in history, was even publicly reproved, thanks to the shameful impunity pact with Franco, which the national democratic left (PSOE, PCE, UGT and CCOO – the “socialist” and “communist” political parties and their respective affiliated union centers, ed.) sealed in its surrender agreement with capital, known as the “Spanish Transition” (1977).

Nevertheless, the people continued to defend, often with their lives, the simple principles of anarcho-syndicalism: independence, autonomy, federalism, self-management, assemblies, solidarity and direct action, i.e. self-organization, to reject any interference by political parties or other institutions, economic, religious, etc., in labor affairs. Strikes, demonstrations, repression and torture were the daily chronicle of the dictatorship (1939-1976), until their disappearance when the labor movement thrillingly came back to rebuild their beloved CNT (1977).

We live in new years of incessant labor conquest. The days of Montjuic, or San Sebastian de los Reyes, marked the powerful rebirth of the confederation in the 1970s. The progress of the labor movement, again self-organized by the CNT, through examples like the strike struggles of gas stations in 1978, prompted the reaction of capitalism, this time supported by the democratic state and its institutional apparatus (governments, parties, judges, trade union bureaucracies, …).

The successful union of the CNT was suppressed by the police (Case Scala, 1978) and, with the silence and propaganda campaigns of defamation in the media, this has generated disastrous consequences for the labor movement in this country.

The weakening of the anarcho-syndicalist presence in the labor movement made possible the loss of rights acquired after a long and bitter union struggles, by deregulation and labor precariousness implanted with the worst of the corruptions plaguing the country: union corruption. An officially silent corruption, which corrupts the union movement in general in the eyes of workers, but mainly it stars institutional unions – the CCOO and the UGT, whose unionist “yuppies” acquire grants and amounts in the millions from governments and businesses as payment to their treason, for accepting whatever measures are taken in defense of capital accumulation and rising profits (EREs, labor reforms, lay offs, etc …).

Despite all that, thousands of workers now follow the genuine labor organization which we call the CNT, keeping it exclusively their own, making it the only living example of class unionism, capable of dealing with oppression and social control, ecological destruction and over-exploitation of the world economy, all aspects inherent to capitalism.

2010 has for us a special connotation: it marks a century of existence of the CNT. It is the centenary of a people and the invaluable struggle of thousands of people over the last hundred years has provided us with a shining blueprint, to be followed by the world’s working class, by their own culture, self-organizing capacity, radical struggles, popular spread and revolutionary achievements in order to build an anti-authoritarian society based on solidarity.

These ideals form the noble cause to which we invite you here and now.

The CNT has established a web site commemorating the centenary at http://cnt.es/centenario. It includes a program of events throughout Spain, including an April 2010 conference on alternatives to capitalism in Barcelona at which ASR editorial collective member Jon Bekken will be among the presenters.

The CGT (General Confederation of Labor, which separated from the CNT in the 1980s) also lays claim to the heritage of the CNT, and presents its own statement and discusses its centenary plans at www.cgt.org.es/spip.php?rubrique125

Fighting Fascism: Lessons from Italy

by Iain McKay, ASR 71/2, Fall 2017

The election of Donald Trump came as a surprise to many, given the obvious demagoguery, incoherence and authoritarianism he exhibited as a candidate. It matters little that he lost the popular vote, the fact is that enough people in specific states were willing to vote for him – and now we all have to live with the outcome. The result of decades of right-wing glorification of the wealthy, calls to run the state as a business (i.e., as a dictatorship), and the like can now be seen in all their glory. A better argument for anarchism would be hard to find.

That does not mean, of course, passively awaiting the next election as the myth of democracy would have us believe. It means resisting – and there have been promising signs of that, such as lively town-hall meetings (which raises the question, why not make them permanent and so become a power no politician can ignore?). It has also been seen in protests against the worst of Trump supporters – the KKK, neo-Nazis and the rest of the so-called “alt-right.”

That Trump could not bring himself to read a simple prepared statement and instead ad-libbed about “both sides” shows that he did not want to alienate them. Sadly, significant numbers of Republican voters likewise cannot see the difference between fascism and resisting fascism. A significant part of America has lost its moral compass.

The events in Charlottesville bring home that resisting fascism is not only necessary but also dangerous. This can be seen from the rise of fascism in Italy after the First World War, something which was never inevitable and from which lessons can be learned.

“A Preventative Counter-Revolution”

The rise of Mussolini cannot be viewed in isolation. After the end of the First World War there was a massive radicalization across Europe and the world. Union membership exploded, with strikes, demonstrations and agitation reaching massive levels. This was partly due to the war, partly to the apparent success of the Russian Revolution. Across Europe, anarchist ideas became more popular and anarcho-syndicalist unions grew in size as part of a general rise and growth of the left.

In Italy, the post-war ferment grew into a near revolution, with the rise of workers’ councils and the occupation of factories in 1920. The anarchists and syndicalists took an active, indeed, leading role in the movement as Errico Malatesta, who took part in these events, writes:

The metal workers started the movement over wage rates. It was a strike of a new kind. Instead of abandoning the factories, the idea was to remain inside without working … Throughout Italy there was a revolutionary fervour among the workers and soon the demands changed their characters. Workers thought that the moment was ripe to take possession once [and] for all the means of production. They armed for defence … and began to organise production on their own … It was the right of property abolished in fact…; it was a new regime, a new form of social life that was being ushered in. And the government stood by because it felt impotent to offer opposition. (Errico Malatesta: His Life and Ideas [Freedom Press, 1993], 134)

The socialists and their trade unions did not back the movement in spite of having talked of being revolutionary for decades, although groups and individuals within the party did (such as in Turin, with Antonio Gramsci taking the lead – these would later split from the Socialists and form the Italian Communist Party). Faced with the hostility of the “official” labor movement, the occupations ended after four weeks.

Unsurprisingly, the promises given by the employers and state to end the occupations were not kept and “after the factories were evacuated” the government (obviously knowing who the real threat was) “arrested the entire leadership of the USI [Italian Syndicalist Union] and UAI [Italian Anarchist Union]. The socialists … more or less ignored the persecution of the libertarians until the spring of 1921 when the aged Malatesta and other imprisoned anarchists mounted a hunger strike from their cells in Milan.” (Carl Levy, Gramsci and the Anarchists [Berg, 1999], 221-2) They were acquitted after a four-day trial.

This period of Italian history explains the growth of fascism in Italy. As Tobias Abse points out, “the rise of fascism in Italy cannot be detached from the events of the biennio rosso, the two red years of 1919 and 1920, that preceded it. Fascism was a preventive counter-revolution … launched as a result of the failed revolution” (“The Rise of Fascism in an Industrial City,” David Forgacs (ed.), Rethinking Italian fascism: Capitalism, populism and culture [Lawrence and Wishart, 1986], 54) The term “preventive counter-revolution” was originally coined by the anarchist Luigi Fabbri, who correctly described fascism as “the organisation and agent of the violent armed defence of the ruling class against the proletariat, which, to their mind, has become unduly demanding, united and intrusive.”

The capitalists and rich landowners backed the fascists in order to teach the working class to know their place, aided by the state. They ensured “that it was given every assistance in terms of funding and arms, turning a blind eye to its breaches of the law and, where necessary, covering its back through intervention by armed forces which, on the pretext of restoring order, would rush to the aid of the fascists wherever the latter were beginning to take a beating instead of doling one out.” (Fabbri) To quote Abse:

The aims of the Fascists and their backers amongst the industrialists and agrarians in 1921-22 were simple: to break the power of the organised workers and peasants as completely as possible, to wipe out, with the bullet and the club, not only the gains of the biennio rosso, but everything that the lower classes had gained … between the turn of the century and the outbreak of the First World War. (54)

The fascist squads attacked and destroyed anarchist and socialist meeting places, social centers, radical presses and Camera del Lavoro (local union councils). Thousands of individuals were attacked and murdered. However, even in the dark days of fascist terror, the anarchists resisted the forces of totalitarianism:

It is no coincidence that the strongest working-class resistance to Fascism was in … towns or cities in which there was quite a strong anarchist, syndicalist or anarcho-syndicalist tradition. (Abse, 56)

The Arditi del Popolo

The anarchists participated in, and often organized sections of, the Arditi del Popolo (The People’s Shock-troops), a working-class organization devoted to the self-defense of workers’ interests. The Arditi del Popolo organized and encouraged working-class resistance to fascist squads, often defeating larger fascist forces: for example, “the total humiliation of thousands of Italo Balbo’s squadristi by a couple of hundred Arditi del Popolo backed by the inhabitants of the working class districts” in the anarchist stronghold of Parma in August 1922 (Abse, 56).

The Arditi del Popolo was the closest Italy got to the idea of a united, revolutionary working-class front against fascism, as had been suggested by Italian anarchists and syndicalists during the biennio rossa. This movement “developed along anti-bourgeois and anti-fascist lines, and was marked by the independence of its local sections.” (Red Years, Black Years: Anarchist Resistance to Fascism in Italy [ASP, 1989], 2) Rather than being just an “anti-fascist” organization, it was “not a movement in defense of ‘democracy’ in the abstract, but an essentially working-class organization devoted to the defense of the interests of industrial workers, the dockers and large numbers of artisans and craftsmen.” (Abse, 75) Unsurprisingly, the Arditi del Popolo “appear to have been strongest and most successful in areas where traditional working-class political culture was less exclusively socialist and had strong anarchist or syndicalist traditions, for example, Bari, Livorno, Parma and Rome.” (Antonio Sonnessa, “Working Class Defence Organisation, Anti-Fascist Resistance and the Arditi del Popolo in Turin, 1919-22,” European History Quarterly 33: 2 184)

However, both the socialist and communist parties withdrew from the organization. The socialists signed a “Pact of Pacification” with the fascists in August 1921. The communists “preferred to withdraw their members from the Arditi del Popolo rather than let them work with the anarchists.” (Red Years, Black Years, 17) Indeed, “[o]n the same day as the Pact was signed, Ordine Nuovo published a PCd’I [Communist Party of Italy] communication warning communists against involvement” in the Arditi del Popolo. Four days later, the Communist leadership “officially abandoned the movement. Severe disciplinary measures were threatened against those communists who continued to participate.” Thus by “the end of the first week of August 1921 the PSI, CGL and the PCd’I had officially denounced” the organization. “Only the anarchist leaders, if not always sympathetic to the programme of the [Arditi del Popolo], did not abandon the movement.” Indeed, the leading anarchist newspaper, Umanita Nova, “strongly supported” it “on the grounds it represented a popular expression of anti-fascist resistance and in defence of freedom to organise.” (Sonnessa, 195, 194)

However, in spite of the decisions by their leaders, many rank-and-file socialists and communists took part in the movement. The latter took part in open “defiance of the PCd’I leadership’s growing abandonment” of it. In Turin, for example, communists who took part in the Arditi del Polopo did so “less as communists and more as part of a wider, working-class self-identification … This dynamic was re-enforced by an important socialist and anarchist presence.” The failure of the Communist leadership to support the movement shows the bankruptcy of Bolshevik organizational forms, which were unresponsive to the needs of the popular movement. Indeed, these events show the “libertarian custom of autonomy from, and resistance to, authority was also operated against the leaders of the workers’ movement, particularly when they were held to have misunderstood the situation at grass roots level.” (Sonnessa, 200, 198, 193)

The Communist Party failed to support the popular resistance to fascism. The Communist leader Antonio Gramsci argued that “the party leadership’s attitude on the question of the Arditi del Popolo … corresponded to a need to prevent the party members from being controlled by a leadership that was not the party’s leadership.” Gramsci added that this policy “served to disqualify a mass movement which had started from below and which could instead have been exploited by us politically.” (Selections from Political Writings 1921-1926 [Lawrence and Wishart, 1978], 333) While less sectarian towards the Arditi del Popolo than other Communist leaders, “[i]n common with all communist leaders, Gramsci awaited the formation of the PCd’I-led military squads.” (Sonnessa, 196) In other words, the struggle against fascism was seen by the Communist leadership as a means of gaining more members and, when the opposite was a possibility, they preferred defeat and fascism rather than risk their followers becoming influenced by anarchism.

As Abse notes, “it was the withdrawal of support by the Socialist and Communist parties at the national level that crippled” the Arditi. (74) Thus “social reformist defeatism and communist sectarianism made impossible an armed opposition that was widespread and therefore effective; and the isolated instances of popular resistance were unable to unite in a successful strategy.” And fascism could have been defeated: “Insurrections at Sarzanna, in July 1921, and at Parma, in August 1922, are examples of the correctness of the policies which the anarchists urged in action and propaganda.” (Red Years, Black Years, 2-3) Abse confirms this analysis, arguing that

[w]hat happened in Parma in August 1922 … could have happened elsewhere, if only the leadership of the Socialist and Communist parties thrown their weight behind the call of the anarchist Malatesta for a united revolutionary front against Fascism. (56)

As with libertarian calls for a united front during the near-revolutionary situation after the war, these calls were ignored.

Perhaps needless to say, the state verbally denounced the violence (on both sides, of course!) but primarily targeted those opposing the fascists as Fabbri noted:

Italian jails are filled with workers and the heaviest sentences rain down on workers who made the mistake in clashes of using violence to defend themselves from the fascists. Moreover, we have already seen the government’s stance as soon as the spontaneous initiative of the people came up with the idea of forming proletarian defence units which were dubbed the Arditi del Popolo. Outside of Rome … the mere idea of setting up Arditi del Popolo chapters has been pre-emptively stamped out in the most vigorous fashion – through bans, threats, raids and arrests.

Fabbri also indicated “the police’s class function” and how fascist attacks “happened under the very eyes of huge police, carabinieri, Royal Guard and constabulary forces who would, after some initial sham opposition, let things proceed” while “chapters of the Arditi del Popolo are broken up and its members arrested for offences against the security of the state – or is the state fascism, perhaps? – merely for their intention to offer other than passive resistance to fascist violence.” Governmental edicts “trigger[ed] the imprisonment of many more workers as supposed Arditi del Popolo, whereas no action will be taken against the fascist action squads.”

In the end, fascist violence was successful and capitalist power maintained:

The anarchists’ will and courage were not enough to counter the fascist gangs, powerfully aided with material and arms, backed by the repressive organs of the state. Anarchists and anarcho-syndicalists were decisive in some areas and in some industries, but only a similar choice of direct action on the parts of the Socialist Party and the General Confederation of Labour [the reformist trade union] could have halted fascism. (Red Years, Black Years, 1-2)

After helping to defeat the revolution, the Marxists helped ensure the victory of fascism.

Conclusions for today

The rise of fascism confirmed Malatesta’s warning at the time of the factory occupations: “If we do not carry on to the end, we will pay with tears of blood for the fear we now instil in the bourgeoisie.” (quoted by Abse, 66) It is not surprising that when their privileges and power were in danger, the capitalists and the landowners turned to fascism to save them. This process is a common feature in history (to list just four examples: Italy, Germany, Spain and Chile). Moreover, capitalists have always hired private goons to break strikes and unions – American capitalists being at the forefront of that.

Yet there is no mass working class revolt – nor has there been for many decades. The neo-liberal onslaught started by Carter and intensified by Reagan has been successful – labor has been defeated to a large degree and wealth has flooded upwards (rather than “trickled down”). As such, there is no real equivalent of the ruling class’s fears in the 1920s:

The anarchist Luigi Fabbri termed fascism a preventative counter-revolution; but in his essay he makes the important point that the employers, particularly in agriculture, were not so much moved by fear of a general revolution as by the erosion of their own authority and property rights which had already taken place locally: ‘The bosses felt they were no longer bosses.’ (Adrian Lyttelton, “Italian Fascism,” Fascism: A Reader’s Guide [Penguin, 1979], 91)

The rise of Trump has been somewhat driven, ironically, by those most subject to Republican policies – policies which Trump seeks to continue (under the usual rhetoric of tax reform). However, we should not stress that aspect of his support too much – he has always been more popular with the top-end of the wealth distribution. Most elements of the capitalist class seem happy enough to have the crazies in office so long as they can secure that agenda. Short-termism, perhaps, but there is no popular movement to disabuse them of such notions.

So the “alt-right” are currently not needed by the ruling class – but obviously it would be suicidal to ignore them on the hope (if that is the word!) that there is no upsurge in class struggle which would make their services more appealing to the elite. Lack of ruling class backing will not stop them from attacking black people, feminists, the left, strikers, etc. if they feel strong enough. So we need to confront them; otherwise they will be emboldened by the lack of resistance, just as the Italian fascists were. And if we confront them – even verbally – we need to be able to defend ourselves, just as the most forward-looking of the Italian left did.

Similarly, we must remember that the state is not a neutral body and will seek to defend the powers and property of the few (even if we ignore any personal sympathies individual law enforcement officers have with the right). Any appeal to the state to pass laws restricting freedom of assembly, speech and so on will see them used primarily against the left and rebel workers. Such illusions must be dispelled.

While the obvious lesson from Italy is that we must unite with those seeking to defeat fascism, we must be watchful for two dangers.

First, that anti-fascism gets watered down so much that it forgets the roots of fascism in capitalism. Fascism rises, mostly, to defend capital but also to some degree because it offers false solutions to real problems. Any effective anti-fascism must provide a class analysis, a critique of capitalism, real solutions. This cannot be done if we seek a popular front and submerge this analysis. This does not mean isolation, quite the reverse as we must win others to our views, but any united front must be aware of the roots of fascism and how to counter its scapegoating with genuine alternatives. Urging people to simply vote for the lesser – but still neo-liberal – evil will not do it.

Second, we must be watchful for those on the left – primarily Leninists of various kinds – who will view any militant anti-fascist movement as merely a means for building their party. As the example of the Italian Communists shows, this can go so far as to undermine popular resistance if they think that is working against the interests of the vanguard. Popular resistance and organization needs to be viewed as a positive in and of itself, not as a means of building a party.

While learning from history, we must beware of mechanically applying what worked in the past. We are not living in Italy during the early 1920s. There is no mass libertarian movement with firm roots in workplaces and communities. The need is to build both and in this the Arditi del Popolo shows the way forward. It united those who saw the threat of fascism and were willing to act. However, it was also part of wider working class social movements – and worked with these to defeat the fascist gangs. Without this wider social base, any militant anti-fascist organization is in danger of being isolated and so defeated by the powers of the state.

Further Reading

This article is based on section A.5.5 of An Anarchist FAQ vol. 1 (AK Press, 2008), which covers the near revolution in more detail.

Luigi Fabbri’s The Preventive Counter-Revolution (https://libcom.org/library/preventative-counter-revolution-luigi-fabbri) is an excellent early (1921) account of the rise of fascism by a leading Italian anarchist.

M. Testa’s Militant Anti-Fascism: A Hundred Years of Resistance (AK Press, 2015) has a useful chapter on the resistance to Mussolini.

Tom Behan’s The Resistible Rise of Benito Mussolini (Bookmarks, 2003) should be avoided. While meant to be about the Ardito del Popolo, it is really about the Italian Communist Party and its errors. While it has some useful material, it was written by a member of the British SWP during their short-lived return to anti-fascist activity in the early 2000s and suffers as a result. See my critique “The irresistible correctness of anarchism” (http://anarchism.pageabode.com/anarcho/the-irresistible-correctness-of-anarchism).

Fascist Attack in Charlottesville

from ASR 71/72

Neo-Nazis marching in Charlottesville, Virginia, attacked protesters and murdered a protester widely reported to be an IWW member – part of a group of Wobblies and others mowed down when one of the neo-Nazis plowed his car into the crowd.

The Industrial Workers of the World issued this statement: “Heather Heyer, the 32-year old murdered by fascists on August 12, 2017, lost her life protesting the fascists. She should be alive with us today. We carry her in our hearts, and move forward with the struggle determined to realize the hopes she held when she faced down the fascists.

“On the internet, it has been widely reported that Heather was a member of our union, the IWW. It does not appear that she ever joined our union, but we would have welcomed her. She was a courageous woman and we should all seek inspiration from her and work to amplify her message. Members of the IWW were on the scene and were among the wounded. Like Heather, they courageously stood up to the forces of hate in one of the largest fascist gatherings in decades. We are grateful that they remain with us, and we are furious that Heather is with us no longer.”

The violence began the night before as hundreds of neo-Nazis and other white nationalists descended on the city, chanting fascist slogans and attacking protesters. Many of the neo-nazis were carrying assault rifles and other weapons; police stood by as one fired in the direction of protesters and then walked past a police barricade. (He was arrested two weeks later on charges of discharging a firearm within 1,000 feet of a school, after the ACLU released video footage of the incident they had earlier shared with police.)

Police allowed the fascists free reign to terrorize the city, refusing to protect Congregation Beth Israel, where gun-toting neo-Nazis stood watch at the entrance, and hundreds of fascists paraded past chanting “Sieg Heil” and other anti-Semitic slogans. (Forty worshippers ultimately escaped through the rear of the synagogue.) Cornel West, part of a group of clergy and civil rights activists standing arm-in-arm in an attempt to block the fascist march, noted that the police made no effort to protect them. “We would have been crushed like cockroaches if it were not for the anarchists and the antifascists who approached, over 300, 350 antifascists. We just had 20. … They saved our lives.”

A Virginia state trooper interfered with a street medic who was trying to save Heyer’s life. As the medic administered CPR, the trooper forcibly removed an EMT who was assisting in resuscitation. The trooper continued ordering the medic and protesters who were assisting her to leave – stopping only when a firefighter arrived on the scene and took over chest compressions.

This brazen display of fascist violence triggered renewed calls to tear down Confederate and other race-baiting monuments across the country. In Durham, North Carolina, protesters took matters into their own hands, toppling a memorial to Confederate soldiers erected in 1924, as a resurgent Ku Klux Klan was terrorizing African-Americans, Jews, and labor activists. Four people were arrested for this act of civic improvement, and hundreds lined up outside the jail to turn themselves in as participants.

In Minneapolis, performers and bar workers walked out of Clubhouse Jäger after learning that its owner was financially supporting former Ku Klux Klan Grand Dragon David Duke, now a white supremacist Republican. Workers quit en masse after learning that their labor was supporting racists and fascists. The owner told a local television station the donation was a matter of “free speech.”

Wobbly shot protesting neo-fascist

A Seattle IWW member was shot in the stomach at a protest against neo-fascist Milo Yiannopoulos. The fellow worker (whose name has not yet been released by police or supporters) is in critical condition. Funds are being raised for medical care, lost wages, etc.: https://www.crowdrise.com/medical-fundraiser-for-iww-and-gd…

This newspaper report includes information about the 34-year-old fellow worker, who remains in hospital: http://www.seattletimes.com/…/police-release-man-arrested-…/

Police have released the shooter, “pending investigation.” He claims he thought the victim was a white supremacist, and fired in self-defense. This sort of argument, apparently, is good enough to free folks who shoot at unionists; one suspects police would be far less receptive were it the other way around.
http://www.king5.com/…/person-shot-at-uw-protest-…/389516924

Editorial: The Anti-Fascist Dilemma

According to game theory, the Prisoners’ Dilemma is a tool often used by the police to get suspects to inform on one another. The two prisoners are kept in separate cells and questioned where they are unable to hear what the other says to police. Each is told that their friend has already spilled the beans and admitted guilt as well as accused the other of being an accomplice. The “good news” is that a deal is being offered to get a reduced sentence for the crime, if the prisoner being questioned admits guilt and tells the police who else was involved. What the prisoner does not know is if the police are lying just to get a confession. The prisoners’ dilemma is whether to trust the police and assume their accomplice has already sold them out, or take a chance that their friend has remained silent, in which case both prisoners go free. More often than not the prisoners assume the worst case, one or both rat on each other, and both go to jail.

The left in the United States has been confronted with an electoral version of the Prisoners’ Dilemma in the form of the presidential contest between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. Trump may or may not be a fascist in the mold of Hitler or Mussolini, but one certainly can’t tell from his rhetoric. Trump has threatened to deport millions of undocumented men, women, and children, without regard for how many years they have lived or worked in this country and how many children may be separated from their parents. Trump has threatened to kill the families of Muslim insurgents in Iraq and Syria. Trump has threatened to ban Muslims from entering the United States. Trump has applauded and encouraged racist thugs to attack protestors at his rallies. Trump has made threats against women who have had abortions, as well as their doctors. Trump refused to repudiate the endorsement of David Duke and the KKK with the claim that he did not “know who they are.” Trump is the brutal cop threatening to throw his prisoners into the deepest darkest dungeon.

On the other side of the bargain is Hillary Clinton. Hillary Clinton is no fascist, but neither is she a friend to working people. Clinton was an unofficial member of her husband’s presidential administration. Bill Clinton fast-tracked NAFTA, which devastated the unions in this country, particularly good-paying jobs in manufacturing. Bill Clinton ended Aid to Families with Dependent Children, resulting in increased poverty among children and women. Bill Clinton deregulated Wall Street and the banks, which made possible the great recession, the loss of millions of working class homes, and the devastation of pension funds. Clinton passed mandatory sentencing laws that resulted in thousands of black men being incarcerated for drug offenses by a judicial system that targeted them due to race. Hillary was her husband’s principal advisor and she had her hand in all of this. As Secretary of State under the Obama administration, she supported the military coup in Honduras, the wars in Libya and Syria, and enabled the TPP by turning the trade negotiations over to corporate lobbyists. Clinton is the “good cop,” the “plea bargain,” the neo-liberal alternative to Trump’s neo-fascism.

Anarchists were confronted by a similar choice, although with much higher stakes, in Spain in 1936. Spain, like the rest of the world, was in the grips of the Great Depression. Massive unemployment and wage cutting had brought on strikes and insurrections by the workers resulting in the arrest and imprisonment of thousands of militants, particularly members of the anarcho-syndicalist CNT. The anarchists joined the rest of the left in parliamentary elections and put liberals and socialists in power to stave off the right wing and to get amnesty for their own imprisoned comrades. What the right could not win at the polls, the fascists decided to take by force. On July 19, the Spanish Army revolted against the elected Republican government with the aim of creating a fascist dictatorship similar to the ones in Germany and Italy at the time. Anarchists were faced with a choice to either “go for broke” with a social revolution or support the Republic in a struggle against fascism. The leaders of the two major anarchist organizations, the CNT and FAI, chose the latter, but the Republic was defeated after three years of civil war and Spain was ruled by the fascists for nearly forty years.

Once again the left, the socialists, anarchists and liberals, have been confronted with the political version of the Prisoners’ Dilemma. Support Hillary Clinton, the “anti-fascist,” or do nothing and let the “fascist” Donald Trump take power. The leaders of the Democrats, the so-called “progressives,” have taken Sanders’ political revolution off the agenda. Good-paying jobs, economic equality, social justice, climate stability, all the goals of the left are just empty campaign promises that will be sacrificed to the neo-liberal agenda as soon as the election is over. Nothing will change.

There is a solution to the dilemma. If the left, the prisoners in this game, maintain solidarity and do not collaborate with the cops, do not snitch on one another, they will go free. As far as this election goes, it is too late. Hillary Clinton will most likely be elected, but the game is not over. President Clinton will quietly push her neo-liberal agenda, while demanding support from the left against “a vast right-wing conspiracy.” Just as was done during her campaign, the Democrats will continue to divide black against white, old against young, women against men, liberals against socialists, always with the accusation that somehow her critics just aren’t anti-fascist enough. Yet only by joining together against both the neo-liberals and the fascists can the people go free.

It is time we begin to do what Sanders did not do, build networks across the divisions within the working class. We must learn the lessons of the Spanish Civil War and not fall into the same trap. The revolution and the war against fascism are inseparable. Fascism has its roots in the economic authoritarianism of capitalism and the political authoritarianism of the State. Fascism relies on putting the blame for the failings of capitalism on racial minorities, non-conformists, labor unions, and the left.

Fascists are the bullies of the bosses. These bosses are the very same ones who are pushing the neo-liberal agenda. Only by building a mass movement whose aims go beyond stopping fascism and creating direct democracy in the workplace and the community can we end the threat of fascism.