History provides invaluable lessons in how to stop fascism in its tracks

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The Fight Against Fascism in the U.S.A., by James P Cannon, Farrell Dobbs, Joseph Hansen, Leon Trotsky and Murry Weiss, Resistance Books (2004), ISBN 1876646179, 237 pages, $19.95.

In January 1997, a fascist outfit, National Action (NA), opened a bookshop in the multicultural Melbourne suburb of Fawkner. This development led to the reactivation of Campaign Against the Nazis (CAN), a united front of socialist organisations and progressive activists which years earlier drove these neo-Nazis out of nearby Brunswick. CAN again mobilised the broadest possible, disciplined protests to prevent National Action from putting down roots in Fawkner.

It also sparked a range of very familiar debates about the best way to respond to the threat of fascism. Members of the ALP, who dominated the local council, argued that the community should ignore NA, claiming that they’d just go away. In contrast, the International Socialist Organisation (ISO) called on the council to ban the group. The ISO previously had taken a similar approach of appealing to the State, demanding that the local council stop rightwing populist, Pauline Hanson, from using council buildings. The council obliged with a resolution that refused “divisive groups” access to facilities. It was no surprise when CAN — which was organising the community in expelling the fascists — got a phone call from the council to warn it about the new policy!

The Fight Against Fascism in the U.S.A. is a fascinating collection of public and internal documents from the archives on the U.S. Socialist Workers Party, spanning the period from the 1930s to the 1970s. The debates thrown up during real struggles are essential reading for those serious about learning how to fight fascism.

Veterans from anti-fascist struggles put a compelling case that socialists should never appeal to the State to restrict the rights of any organisation — even fascists! But the contributions also deal with the subtleties of which tactics best suit conditions in different periods.

A 1939 contribution, “Should Fascists Be Allowed the Rights of Free Speech?,” urges working class activists not to be led off course by professional liberals and civil libertarians. It points to the hypocrisy of organisations like the American Civil Liberties Union: “The ACLU, apparently exhausted by its noble efforts on behalf of the Nazis, did not utter a peep about the democratic rights of free speech, assembly and picketing being denied the 50,000 anti-fascists who came to protest the Nazi rally.” The piece advises socialists to keep the emphasis squarely on the democratic rights of anti-fascists to demonstrate and speak out — not get caught up in abstract debates about liberals’ agendas.

In 1960 the Mayor of New York denied the American Nazi Party, led by George Lincoln Rockwell, a permit to hold a rally. SWP veteran, James P Cannon, was alarmed by the development and wrote to New Yorker Tom Kerry: “It sets a dangerous precedent. The reason he gave for denying the constitutional rights of the American ‘Nazi’ screwballs, and his incitement to violence against them, can be applied just as well and just as logically to us or any other minority. We will be greatly handicapped in fighting against such discriminations if we give direct or even indirect sanction to this treatment of others. People who demand free speech and constitutional rights for themselves but want to deny it for others do not get much public sympathy when their own rights are denied.”

Theory and tactics. As well as providing useful insights into developing the most appropriate tactics, the collection educates about social movement history. The introduction by Malik Miah, a Black civil rights activist who was a leader of the SWP for many years, explains the centrality of this question for Trotskyists. It was the failure of the mass socialist and communist parties of Europe to unite and use the power of the working class to stop the rise of fascism that led to the formation of the Fourth International after Trotsky concluded that these parties could not be reformed. Miah explains: “The political strategy of the Marxists, called Trotskyists, remains a key method of struggle to take on rightist formations and incipient fascists. The SWP was an active participant and builder of the anti-fascist movement. The SWP members, particularly those in trade unions, followed a strategy of counter-mobilisation to fight the incipient fascist groups and advocated the formation of workers’ defence guards to defend working class organisations. Liberals who opposed fascists, on the other hand, focused on relying on the capitalist courts and legislatures to stand up to the fascists.”

A key issue addressed in the book is how to recognise fascism and incipient fascist movements. While agreeing with the importance of confronting Rockwell and his Nazi Party, Cannon says: “the real American fascists look more like Mayor Hague, Senator McCarthy, possibly Senator Goldwater. It can be put down with absolute assurance that in no case will they wear Nazi uniforms, swastikas and praise Hitler. To picture Rockwell’s outfit as representing American fascism thus helps create the illusions that the real fascists, when they show up, will be identifiable with similar ease and will similarly openly stir up the most violent antipathies, including those of the most patriotic Americans.”

The opening selection in the collection is a pamphlet titled Father Coughlin: Fascist Demagogue, written by Joseph Hansen. During the 1930s, in the context of economic crisis and widespread disillusionment in President Roosevelt, various fascist movements began to emerge. One was called the Social Justice Movement, led by Reverend Charles E Coughlin, the “radio priest” whose speeches were broadcast on 48 stations. Hansen clearly explains what fascism is: “First, it is a wide mass movement of farmers and small business who face bankruptcy, of youth denied a future under capitalism, of sections of the unemployed. All these layers of the oppressed who are seeking desperately to put their hands on the surrounding plenty become hypnotised by the silver-plated promises of a demagogue who regiments them into blindly obedient shock troops.

“Secondly, it is financed and controlled by the very capitalists who above all are anxious to keep the revolutionary violence of the masses from turning against them. In America — the DuPonts, the Morgans, the Rockefellers — the Sixty Families.

“To the rank and file followers of fascism, at first it seems a genuine revolutionary way out of their misery. They discover the truth too late. The capitalists provide the money. The dictator provides the powerful slogans, the stirring names, the demagogic program, the organisation, the lieutenants, and the oratory.”

In short, fascism is used by the capitalist State as a last resort in the face of growing working class dissent. Fascism crushes bourgeois democratic norms in order to save the free market and private property.

Coughlin used a great deal of social justice rhetoric, but among his 16 points for social justice was a call for the preservation of private property. “Devotion to capitalism and preservation of private property,” argues Cannon, “is the holy bible of fascism.” Coughlin opposed social security, advising the ruling class to regiment labour and quash its capacity to fight big capital. He was pro-war and proselytised the need for a bigger army and navy. His “vision” for addressing unemployment was of jobless youth “marching behind bayonets.”

Another invaluable selection is Joseph Hansen’s response to two comrades who argued that Senator Joseph McCarthy was not an incipient fascist, as characterised by the party majority, but merely a “bourgeois democrat.” Hansen acknowledged that, at the time, McCarthyism was far from being fully formed fascism. McCarthy hadn’t built his own party, instead continuing to operate as a faction in the Republican and, to some extent, Democratic Party ranks. But his aim — the destruction of bourgeois democratic norms — was clear, hence the characterisation of him as an incipient fascist.

Building broad support. The Freedom Socialist Party’s (FSP) Trotskyist tradition of fighting fascism is firmly rooted in this book. The FSP split from the SWP in 1966 around a range of questions, including opposition to Black nationalism and the centrality of women’s liberation.

A fascinating piece in the book is by Murry Weiss, a leader of SWP in Los Angeles who later joined the FSP. Weiss reports on organising against Gerald LK Smith. At the end of World War II, there was a revival in fascist activity. In 1945 Smith embarked on a national tour of the U.S. with the aim of building a mass base. Weiss describes a situation where the leadership of most sectors in the union movement were passive, and the leadership of the Stalinist Communist Party was tailending the unions. In this climate, the challenge was how to mobilise mass opposition. Weiss describes how the SWP was able to build united front action among the ranks of Stalinists, which eventually forced the Communist Party to come on board.

The emphasis of the SWP campaign was to make the organised working class conscious of who Smith was and why he was so dangerous. Weiss explains, “the line of the campaign was to mobilise the organised forces of the working class for a struggle against Smith. We reasoned: Smith is here to build a mass movement; to win financial support from the influential capitalists; to organise combat groups; to unite all reactionary forces under a single banner; to explode the tinder box of racial tension into riots and pogroms; to turn it all into an attack on the labour movement and on the unemployed who tomorrow will struggle for jobs and security. But Smith is only in the initial stage of his campaign. Therefore we must not allow him to gain time and a foothold but we must smash back with great power and boldness, with overwhelming preponderance of force.”

The key message of The Fight Against Fascism in the U.S.A. is that incipient fascist movements must be identified early and confronted by a broad, democratic and disciplined united front. Taking on rightwing populists and fascists must be done collectively, not in an individualistic or adventurist manner. We also need to assess the balance of forces. In a short piece about organising during the depression era, Felix Morrow says, “a very fruitful discussion can be had on the extremely delicate problems connected with calling upon the workers to fight against the fascists: when to speak purely in defensive terms, and when to go over to terms indicating an offensive against the fascists.”

When 50,000 people responded to the SWP’s call to action, despite the opposition of union, liberal, social democratic, Stalinist and mainstream “leaders,” that was an anti-fascist movement exercising its democratic right to free speech! This happened in New York on the 20th of February 1939 in opposition to plans by the German-American Bund to hold a mass fascist rally. The book is full of stories from real life struggles such as this. It is also a tool kit for how to organise a workers’ defence guard, a disciplined mass rally, or a united front. Along with classics such as Trotsky’s Fascism: What is it and how to fight it?, Daniel Guerin’s Fascism and Big Business, the feminist anthology When Biology Became Women’s Destiny and Helen Gilbert’s LaRouche: Fascism Restyled for a New Millennium, The Fight Against Fascism in the U.S.A. is an excellent addition to any serious anti-fascist fighter’s bookshelf.

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