Since the presidential inauguration, far-right forces have been mobilizing under the slogan of free speech. Right-wing demonstrations began in February with a clash between rightists and anti-fascist activists who were intent on stopping a speech by Breitbart News editor Milo Yiannopoulos. This confrontation gave the so-called alt-right the opportunity to play the victim and advance their violent agenda under the guise of protecting the free expression of Trump supporters. These alt-right mobilizations have taken place in Berkeley, Seattle, Philadelphia, Boston, and Portland, Ore.
By JOHN LESLIE (this will also appear in the June issue of Socialist Action)
Last month in Portland, right-wing attacks escalated into murder after a fascist supporter, Jeremy Joseph Christian, 35, berated two women on the MAX train with a racist and Islamophobic tirade. Christian attacked fellow passengers with a knife when they attempted to stop the harassment. Two people, Rick Best, 53, and Taliesin Myrddin Namkai Meche, 23, were killed and another, Micah Fletcher, 21, was seriously wounded.
Christian has been identified as having attended a rightist action in Portland on April 29, where he was “chanting “n***er” and throwing fascist salutes, wearing an American Revolutionary War flag like a cape.” He has been charged with two counts of felony murder, attempted homicide, intimidation, and possession of a restricted weapon as a felon. At his arraignment, he shouted about exercising his “free speech” and referred to himself as a patriot.
Media and politicians have been reluctant to label the attack a terrorist attack or a hate crime. Instead, they assert that Christian is mentally ill or deranged. If the attacker had been a Muslim, the narrative would be much different! This violent attack has shocked millions and increased awareness of the violent intentions of the far right. More than 1000 attended a memorial vigil in Portland in the wake of the murders.
Reactionaries are calling for two more “free speech” mobilizations in Portland on June 4 and 10. The mayor has called for the “alt-right” organizers to cancel the events and has called for the revocation of the permits by the federal government for a rally planned on government property. In the meantime, the head of the Republican Party in Portland is openly talking about using far-right militia groups to “protect” right-wing mobilizations.
Moreover, while wringing their hands over the supposed free speech of fascists, the right has targeted critics of the Trump administration. Recently, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, an author and member of the International Socialist Organization, has been forced to cancel speaking engagements after receiving vile racist hate mail and death threats against herself and her family, because of remarks critical of Trump made during the commencement ceremony at Hampshire College.
Taylor wrote about the role of the right-wing media in feeding these attacks: “Fox did not run this story because it was ‘news,’ but to incite and unleash the mob-like mentality of its fringe audience, anticipating that they would respond with a deluge of hate-filled emails—or worse. The threat of violence, whether it is implied or acted on, is intended to intimidate and to silence.”
The left movement and supporters of civil liberties should respond to the threats against Taylor with unconditional solidarity. Defense guards could be organized to make sure her right to speak is protected. One of the greatest principles of the socialist and labor movements is “an injury to one is an injury to all.”
Right now, the far right feels emboldened following Trump’s election and his anti-immigrant, sexist, and Islamophobic rhetoric. This “new” right is the same old racist right that has tried to repackage itself as something hipper and different from the Klan and Nazis.
Working-class whites are victims of the current social system, but without a strong workers’ movement and a workers’ party, some of them have been misled into scapegoating immigrants and people of color for their problems, substituting racism for class consciousness and solidarity. With determined leadership in the struggle, white workers can be won away from these reactionary ideas and convinced of the utter necessity of building a multi-racial fightback against the bosses and their government.
Lessons from Germany
Today, the number of outright Nazis and fascists remains tiny. But the deeply deteriorated social conditions that could set a fascist movement into motion may well arise in the coming period.
The tactics of the fascists were described by Malik Miah, writing in the August 1975 International Socialist Review (“Free Speech and the Fight Against the Ultra-Right”): “Fascists try to turn the anger of all those threatened with ruin by the capitalist crisis against the oppressed racial minorities and organized labor. In this country, the approach of fascist organizations in the l930s and l940s was to claim to be the representatives of the ‘little man’ against both the big capitalists and the ‘communists,’ directing their fire especially at Blacks, Jews and ‘big labor.’ In his book ‘Fascism and Big Business,’ Daniel Guerin points out that ‘fascism’s game is to call itself anti-capitalist without seriously attacking capitalism.’”
As a contribution to the discussion on how to fight fascism today, Wladek Flakin, writing in Left Voice (“The Origins of Antifa”), evaluated the experience of Germany in the 1930s: “A unified resistance among workers could have defeated the Nazis. We must not forget that in the 1933 elections, the SPD [Social Democratic Party] and KPD [Communist Party] together received more votes than Hitler.
“But coordinated anti-fascist action was absent. The SPD called the KPD ‘fascists painted red’ and ‘Kozis.’ The KPD called the SPD ‘social fascists. And both parties gave no quarter: linking up with fascists in order to fight other fascists was out of the question.
“So how did they think they could defend themselves from the Nazi threat? The SPD assumed that the state, the Weimar constitution, and the police would protect them. The KPD, on the other hand, actively fought the gangs of the Sturmabteilung (the brownshirts, or SA)—under the impression that they alone, as a radical minority, could stand the Nazis down.
“Both parties were wrong. A real united front against fascism was needed. A united front would mean: ‘March separately, strike together!’ In other words, everyone can stick to and promote their own program, but when it comes to action, you work in concert.”
The sectarian refusal of the Socialists and Communists to build a united front paved the way for Hitler’s rise to power. Together, the Socialist and Communist workers could have crushed the Nazis. In a context where there was mass unemployment and high inflation, the masses needed decisive leadership, which the leaders of both parties failed to provide.
The social base of fascism is the petty bourgeoisie (“middle class”). In the struggle for power, fascism uses anti-capitalist slogans, but their paymasters are the ruling class. They use the petty bourgeoisie as what Trotsky called a “battering ram” against the working class.
Fascism in power in Germany spelled the demise of the trade unions and any other workers’ organizations independent of the state. The regime of fascism is, in the final analysis, the government of finance capital. Having masked their intent under anti-capitalist rhetoric, the Nazis quickly subordinated all of German society to the needs of the capitalist class.
Tactics in fighting fascism and the far right
The strategies and tactics we use can determine our long-run effectiveness in any struggle. How we advance slogans, or what organizing techniques we use can either undermine or strengthen our efforts.
We can’t rely on cops, courts, and capitalist politicians to protect us from right-wing provocateurs and goons. Cops often ally themselves directly with the fascists—this goes as far back as police collaboration with Mussolini’s black shirts.
The Democratic Party has shown itself to be incapable of building a real political opposition to the right wing. If anything, the Democrats helped prepare the ground for the ultra-right through their neoliberal policies. The Democrats will serve the interests of Wall Street before they serve the interests of working people.
The best road forward is to work to isolate the far right through mass counter-mobilizations built by broad united-front coalitions. Such actions have the potential of mobilizing the ranks of the working class and of involving the unions directly.
In the current discussion, however, mass actions have been deemed ineffective by some who favor direct physical confrontation with fascists and the ultra-right. Certainly, depending on the situation, self-defense groups could be called into being. These self-defense groups, if rooted in working-class mass organizations, can form the backbone of a fightback against the far right.
As a rule, however, to beat the ultra-right and the fascists we have to be able to mobilize a broad spectrum of workers and oppressed people. It would be a mistake to get too far ahead of them politically, or to try to lead them into poorly prepared physical confrontations, which could result in unnecessary injuries or arrests.
By the same token, in anti-fascist organizing, you don’t hand your enemy a weapon. The use of the slogan, “no free speech for fascists” gives the advantage to ultra-right forces. Understanding that most workers support the right to free speech, the rightists play the victim and stigmatize the left as being anti-democratic.
Malik Miah wrote in his 1975 International Socialist Review article: “The disagreement is over how to combat them [fascists] most effectively. Most effective is to confront the fascists’ ideas ideologically and their actions through counteractions. The “no platform” approach blunts our effectiveness. It means that the struggle against racism and fascism is turned “inside out.” Instead of coming across for what it really is—a struggle in defense of the democratic rights of the working class and oppressed minorities—the struggle is turned into a sterile dispute over the “rights” of the fascists. That is advantageous to them, not to the antiracist movement.”
The task ahead is to mobilize the largest number of people against the agenda of the racist far right and the economic system that holds us down. All of our strategic and tactical choices should be made with this in mind. Our goal has to be to decisively shift the balance of class forces against these reactionaries.
Workers’ organizations and organizations of the oppressed are key to a mass action orientation. Left forces acting alone cannot defeat the right. The unions, with millions of members, have the social weight to drive these goons off the streets.