The storming of the Capitol on Jan. 6 by an enraged far-right mob, one incited by Donald Trump, was a watershed moment in U.S. history. It was unprecedented and uniquely chilling. Perhaps most important, though, it dramatically underlined the need for workers and the oppressed to take it upon themselves to deal with the rising fascist threat — like, now.
The goal was to forcibly prevent an elected government from taking power; in other words, it was an attempted coup. It fell short, no thanks to the official guardians of our safety, but the marauders had tested their strength and sent out an unmissable invitation for others to join their cause. More evidence emerges every day about the coordinated planning that went into the assault. This reportedly included a tour of the Capitol for the benefit of the insurrectionists the day before, led by a congressional representative.
Certainly, not all of the tens of thousands of people who attended the pro-Trump rally early in the day were neo-Nazis. But key to the attack on the building were fascists like the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers, rabidly flaunting their racist, misogynist, anti-Semitic, heterosexist, xenophobic, and anti-Left agenda.
The day’s horrendous events did not come out of nowhere, and their cause goes much deeper than Trump’s four-year stint as Bigot-in-Chief. What Trump did in office was enable the rise of an already existing fascist current in the United States, which is at times subterranean and at times overt and visible. As we saw clearly on Jan. 6, this current is represented not only in groups of street thugs but in institutions and agents of the state: cops, Congress, the military, local government.
In 1954, during the McCarthy era, founder of U.S. Trotskyism James P. Cannon wrote this: “A fascist movement does not arise from the bad will of malicious demagogues.” Instead, he continued, it is the product of “the incurable crisis of capitalism,” which renders the ruling class “unable to maintain a stable rule through the old bourgeois democratic forms.” (See Fascism and the Workers’ Movement.)
In other words, capitalism carries the seeds of fascism within it; they sprout when the profit system is in dire trouble and people become desperate and willing to challenge the status quo.
So what can be done? Educate, organize, and fight back.
As Cannon wrote in his 1954 essay, “The beginnings of a fascist movement aiming to take power in this country, and fascism already in power, are not the same thing. Between the one and the other lies a protracted period of struggle in which the issue will be finally decided. Whoever recognizes that and ‘sounds the alarm,’ and thus helps to prepare the struggle of the workers, is doing what most needs to be done at the present time.”
Learning about fascism, its nature and its history, is a key first step. And this education is urgently needed in the union movement. Why? Because this is where the working class is most organized and potentially most strong, with the general strike as its most powerful weapon. And because, precisely due to the labor movement’s potential, its destruction is fascism’s ultimate goal.
Hand in hand with education must come building strong alliances and taking united action. It’s necessary to physically stand up against the neo-Nazis in order to combat the fear they engender while providing a hopeful, rational, humane alternative to their vicious, white-supremacist message. Rank-and-file unionists should demand that their leaders form self-defense guards to protect anyone and everyone targeted by the ultra-right.
Workers and oppressed people cannot rely for rescue on the powers-that-be, who will back fascism as the last resort to save the profit system. We need to create a multiracial, multi-issue, disciplined, anti-capitalist movement that includes Black Lives Matter activists, immigrants, fighters for reproductive justice, and more — everyone in jeopardy from the fascists and everyone already struggling for their rights. And we cannot afford to delay.