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The Origins of American Fascism

Fascism: Theory and Practice

Cover photo from David Renton's Fascism: Theory and Practice.

Michael Joseph Roberto formerly taught history at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University. He is at work on a book, tentatively titled The Coming of the American Behemoth, forthcoming from Monthly Review Press.

Donald Trump’s presidency marks the most acute stage of the protracted crisis of U.S. imperial hegemony and its trajectory toward neofascism. The president, his closest advisers, and some key cabinet members are now promoting an openly racist, xenophobic, and nationalist ideology. As John Bellamy Foster has noted, none of this is new to right-wing politics. But he is right to argue that the scale and intensity of recent attacks on immigrants, women’s rights, LGBTQ people, environmentalists, and workers signal a qualitative ideological break with the mainstream of liberal capitalist democracy. The question now is whether Trump and his circle of ultra-nationalist fanatics, Wall Street barons, generals, and assorted political hacks can engineer an American-style Gleichschaltung, “bringing into line” the rest of the executive, the judiciary, the military, and the media behind Trump’s agenda “To Make America Great Again.”1

Following Samir Amin’s analysis of fascism’s revival in contemporary capitalism, Foster places Trump’s neofascism in a larger historical context, pointing out key differences between the “classic” German fascism of the interwar period and the neofascism of our own time. He also finds important parallels. Both forms of fascism arose at crisis points in the history of world capitalism: Germany in the 1930s was an advanced industrial nation-state crippled by the Great Depression; and the United States today (despite its unrivaled destructive power) appears increasingly as a moribund capitalist empire sapped by persistent stagnation at home and challenged abroad by the rise of China and rival imperialist blocs. Foster thus confirms others’ characterization of contemporary U.S. neofascism not as a historical accident, but as a slow-building structural crisis, one that could very well become a crisis of class rule itself.2

Most importantly for my analysis, Foster cites a 1952 exchange between Marxist economist Paul Baran and MR founding editor Paul Sweezy, in which both agreed that fascism was one political form in the monopoly-imperialist phase of capitalism, making it difficult to recognize the precise “jumping [off] place” between liberal democracy and fascism. Following Baran and Sweezy, Foster sees this break at the point when a “severe crisis threatens property relations.” This is the back story that explains Hitler’s rise to power. Comparably, Trump’s neofascism is the outcome of a protracted crisis that marks our own qualitative break from neoliberalism.

A Global Class Analysis

From the contributions of Baran, Sweezy and Foster, we now can focus on the centrality of class analysis in a renewed discourse on American fascism from its origins to the present. This approach provides new insights about fascism as a global phenomenon in the epoch of monopoly-finance capitalism. Generally, it highlights the social composition of national economies where class configurations resulted in fascism’s break with liberal capitalist democracy. In the case of the United States, it suggests that we grasp the current neofascist threat as an historical product of fascist processes that took hold in the 1920s and 1930s when the country was rising to the position of global capitalist hegemon.

Here, an important but forgotten essay by Walter Goldfrank is quite helpful. In 1978, Goldfrank developed a comparative analysis of fascism in the core, semi-periphery, and periphery of the world capitalist system. For Goldfrank, the emergence of fascism anywhere in the world was determined by the level of capitalist development in each nation, from monopoly-finance capital in the core countries to those without capital and totally subject to the imperialist core, namely colonies in the periphery. Competing nations in the semi-periphery had some degree of advanced capital formation, but remained dependent on the core nations as centers of production and investment capital, making them, in Goldfrank’s view, uniquely conducive to fascist movements. In this context, the peripheral relation of German capital to American bankers explained how a crisis that began in the latter could cause the former to collapse. This is what happened between 1929 and 1933, when the Wall Street crash ushered in the Great Depression in the United States, and then hit Germany hard, causing a crisis so severe that German capitalists were driven into the willing, if not ready, arms of Hitler and National Socialism.3

It is worth continuing the comparison between Germany and the United States. Even as an industrialized nation and a colonial power in what had been the European core of the world system, Germany after the First World War was far more dependent on U.S. finance capital than was even Great Britain. Given the punitive reparations imposed at Versailles in 1919 and the disastrous German inflation of 1923, it was only massive American loans and investments that kept the Weimar Republic afloat, driving a heady but short-lived recovery. A year before the 1929 crash, American financiers were pulling back their investments in Germany, lured away by the quicker profits promised by the Wall Street bubble. The immediate result in Germany was a sharp rise in unemployment. Such was Germany’s semi-peripheral dependence on the world’s leading creditor nation.

In my view, it is these national differences within the world capitalist system that explain why German fascism emerged primarily from a mass movement and political party that antagonized capital and labor alike. As the economic crisis worsened in 1931–32, the Nazis were positioned for a surge in the polls from their lower-middle class, Protestant base. Whatever reservations they had about Hitler’s ultra-nationalist rhetoric, Germany’s ruling classes eventually decided that he was their only hope against the threat of political collapse and socialist revolution. When the general crisis became a crisis of class rule in January 1933, capitalists were compelled to line up, step by step, with Hitler.

In the U.S. capitalist epicenter, the driving force of fascism came from the capitalist class itself, intent on extending and protecting the wealth and power it had gained during the boom years of the 1920s. In Germany, by contrast, fascism found its natural base in a disaffected lower middle class moved by rising nationalist anger over the punitive accords of Versailles. In Germany, terrorist ultra-nationalism brought Hitler and his party to power. In the United States, capitalists with the assistance of the State smashed labor during the Red Scare and shared common ground with reactionary terrorist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan in promoting the doctrine of “100 percent Americanism.” However, from 1922 until 1929 they propagated a more palatable nationalism in the form of the American Plan, a strategy of the “open shop” and company unions, used against organized labor.

Already in the 1930s, the most astute American observers traced fascism’s origins to big business and financial capital. Three studies from this period stand out, all written by Marxists or influenced by Marxism: Do We Want Fascism? (1934) by Carmen Haider, The Crisis of the Middle Class (1935) by Lewis Corey, and The Peril of Fascism (1938) by A. B. Magil and Henry Stevens. All three works, long buried by liberal historiography and political commentary, resonate in the current moment. Each argued that the United States would “go fascist” if the capitalist class continued to amass wealth and power over the rest of society. In this respect their position accorded with that of the Communist International, as articulated in 1935 by general secretary Georgi Dimitroff in his report to the Seventh Congress, defining fascism as the rule of finance capital itself.4 As I will argue, this definition now offers insights into the deeper motives of Trump’s ongoing Gleichschaltung.

Studying Fascism in the 1930s

Perhaps the most intriguing of these forgotten works is Carmen Haider’s Do We Want Fascism?. A Columbia-educated historian, Haider traveled to Italy in the 1920s to study the structure of Mussolini’s corporatist state, documenting her findings in one of the earliest academic studies of European fascism.5 On returning to the United States, she conducted a similarly rigorous investigation of the nascent fascist movement in her own country. In Do We Want Fascism? she argued that the rise of American fascism would not require a distinct party, as in Italy and Germany. Rather, fascism could penetrate the two-party system and lead to a fascist state, which Haider defined as “a dictatorial form of government exercised in the interests of capitalists.”6

Though not a Marxist, Haider drew on Marxian concepts to argue that the New Deal had saved the capitalist order, but only temporarily. Haider focused on the National Recovery Administration, established by Congress in June 1933 and charged with reviving American industry. Though it stabilized the economy for a time, the NRA’s attempts at economic planning only sharpened contradictions between capital and labor. For example, although the agency mandated production quotas and commodity price controls, it surrendered most of the power to set and implement these requirements to big business. At the same time, as a concession to labor, workers were guaranteed the right to collective bargaining and unionization. Designed to restore equilibrium between production and consumption, the NRA did little to reform the system of monopolies already in control of the productive sectors of the economy. Without a significant increase in mass purchasing power, economic recovery stalled, and anxiety spread across the class spectrum. Capitalists grew increasingly resentful of government intrusion and sought a return to laissez-faire policies. Meanwhile, millions of workers who had weathered the worst years of the Depression, only to be frustrated by a slow and uneven recovery, began to ponder political alternatives to the status quo.

This much Haider understood. Even if the NRA had restored prosperity, it would not last, because capitalists would demand a return to laissez-faire which, for Haider, could only mean that “the forces which brought about the crisis would continue to be at work in the future.”7 Either way, Haider foresaw an even greater crisis in the immediate future, one that would intensify the contradictions between capital and labor. The NRA had shown that the State could be used to reorganize industry in capital’s own interests, thus lessening the distaste among employers for permanent state intervention in the economy. As for labor, President Roosevelt’s decision to give power to industrial capitalists meant that the promise of collective bargaining and unionization, while not insubstantial victories, posed no immediate threat to capital. Roosevelt had pinned his hopes on cajoling capitalists into dealing with labor in good faith. But labor remained wholly subject to capital. These considerations prompted Haider to raise some key questions. Where was the NRA heading if it survived rising opposition from big business? On the other hand, what would be different if it fell and some new iteration took its place?

As Haider explained, the NRA’s survival would depend on public works to increase employment and boost consumption. But these would require higher taxes on the rich, thus further sharpening the contradiction between capital and labor. New industrial growth would be thwarted by attempts to restore purchasing power to workers. While this was expected to counter rising unrest among the unemployed, more permanent public works would compel additional taxation on the middle classes. As was evident in several states, new sales taxes had already taken the place of increased income taxes. But the whole arrangement “would substantially amount to a redistribution of funds among the masses rather than the creation of new purchasing power.”8 And while industry’s domination over government would ensure wage suppression, the expansion of public works could also bring greater hardship for workers in the form of inflation. Whatever the scenario, the end would always be the same, a “system of outright self-control by industry” with only one plausible outcome:

Such a return to the Right would essentially amount to Fascism, since it would be an attempt to introduce a collective form of capitalism in the place of individualism. Violence might accompany it only in the form of state force against the workers if they should rebel against what must become an oppressive system for them. While thus the essence of Fascism would be present, the secondary aspects, particularly the seizure of power through middle class support, would be missing.9

Here was a crucial point. For Haider, the middle classes would always play a subordinate role to big business and finance in the making of American fascism. To be sure, she did not dismiss the growing distress and increasing militancy among all sections of the middle class. Resentment and anger toward big capital among small business owners as well as salaried white-collar employees was already fueling a reactionary brand of politics that suggested a “fascism from below.” Haider saw this in groups ranging from the grandiose aspirations of the Silver Shirts, Khaki Shirts, and White Crusaders to the more grounded nativism and racism of the Ku Klux Klan and the American Legion. For Haider, however, no organization was more significant than the Farm-Labor Federation, with its contradictory petty-bourgeois politics. Vehemently opposed to socialism, the FLF also proclaimed that capitalism was dead. Opposed to monopoly and banking capital, it was nevertheless firmly committed to the principle of private ownership. For Haider, such contradictions only weakened the FLF’s political posture, making it easier for big business to gain control of the FLF and other middle-class movements like it.

Noting that leading U.S. capitalists were already aware that middle-class discontent had fueled fascist movements in Italy and Germany, Haider predicted that they might decide that the best course of action would be to take charge and redirect this discontent toward their own ends. To Haider, this would not in itself be a problem:

To grow, every movement needs financial assistance, and if such assistance should be forthcoming at the right moment from the industrial and banking group of this country, they would have a good chance of getting hold of the situation. It is obvious that such an arrangement would take place behind the scenes, and for the purpose of popular appeal, pronouncements against the bankers would continue and the promises would be reiterated that, once the new party comes to power, their influence will be destroyed. Such declarations might be expected to be instrumental in drawing other dissatisfied groups in the country into the movement, since they would be given a tangible enemy on whom to blame their troubles, but this by no means implies that these threats will ever find realization through party action.10

For these reasons, a coming American fascism did not require a third, fascist party. Instead, it could emerge from political realignments within the two-party system, transformed by a social and political crisis. Haider contended that with the Democrats in power, Republicans, who already included “several of our foremost financiers and industrial leaders,” knew what they had to do. “It would be an insult to their ability to think that they could not take care of a movement of discontent and direct it into party channels,” she wrote, “even though, possibly, this would imply a recasting of the party.” In that sense the Republicans would also pull in reactionary Democratic elites and reshape their party to oppose Roosevelt and the New Deal coalition. By such a realignment, fascism could take root without disturbing the two-party system.

Here again, the NRA played a major role. A new “conservative Right” led by bankers and big businessmen opposed to New Deal labor provisions “might be expected to give impetus to a fascist movement directed against the present administration,” which Haider saw as the core of “a new Center group” that also included progressive Republicans and even many socialists. In Haider’s predicted realignment, a third group would also form, “an Ultra-Left party,” made up primarily of the Communists, who were then at the height of their influence in the United States. Under fascism, this party would be outlawed, “in accordance with the totalitarian idea of the Fascists.” At the same time, the fascists would also move to reduce the Center Party to impotency, if not destroy it outright.11

The main actors in this realignment were reactionary industrialists and bankers, whose drive for economic dominance pitted them against more reform-minded elements of the ruling class. Out of this political deadlock, the reactionary wing of the capitalist class would take over the Republican Party and wage political warfare against Roosevelt and the New Deal. Then, if the latter failed,

Congress could be captured from within, since a powerful fascist movement caught in Republican Party channels would send its own representatives to Congress, [where] opposition might be negligible. Moreover, a national economic council might be established and the Fascist group, in endorsing economic planning, would probably also approve of occupational representation. Determination of the economic aspects of national life might be turned over to this council as was done in Italy, whereby the power of Congress would be substantially reduced.12

For Haider, the Roosevelt administration’s attempt to end the general capitalist crisis on its own terms had only heightened class conflict within the ruling class, and the split between reactionaries and reformers could only be resolved at the expense of the rest of the population.

Political Limits of Middle-Class Reaction

The following year, the Marxist economist Lewis Corey also argued that any middle-class movement toward fascism would in the end be absorbed by big business and finance capital. In his second major work, The Crisis of the Middle Class, Corey argued that the New Deal’s prioritization of big capital and monopolistic firms had deepened the distress of America’s petty bourgeoisie.13 By limiting abundance in order to raise prices and boost economic growth, New Deal reformers were compelled to destroy existing capital and curtail production. Aligned with the NRA, the Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA) limited farm production to reduce inventories, raise prices, and restore purchasing power to farmers and rural workers. But this hurt small business owners, who struggled to make a profit as prices rose. Limiting production also meant that salaried members of the “new” middle class—office clerks, managers, accountants, lawyers, teachers, engineers, public officials, and others—were thrown into chronic unemployment. This, Corey wrote, drove the middle class toward new ideas and forms of action: “What shall they be? If they are still conditioned by the illusion that the class crisis can be solved within the relations of property, the middle class completely abandons its old democratic ideals and mobilizes against labor, whose struggle for the new socialist order becomes ever more conscious and aggressive. By that act the middle class throws itself into the consuming fires of fascism.”14

Corey explained that this scenario seemed likely given that the middle class could not unite its economically antagonistic factions to form an independent political program. While all sections of the middle class were committed to saving capitalism from the threat of socialism, the consensus ended there. While the “old” middle class of small merchants and farmers sought to limit monopoly power driving it into the ground, the new class of well-paid managers and supervisors, employed by large-scale industry and finance, sought just the opposite. For Corey, this made both groups susceptible to reactionary demagoguery. Yet the independent enterprisers of the old middle class would first give up the fight against monopoly, fearing that the continued struggle would only heighten existing instability and create an opening for the revolutionary aims of socialists and radical labor unions. As Corey noted:

Hence security and the crushing of labor become the new ideals. The old middle class gives up its fight against monopoly, limiting itself to a struggle within the relations of monopoly capitalism, in a new set-up of caste and rigid class stratification enforced by the repressive might of the state. This meets the approval of the higher salaried employees, who are accustomed to the hierarchical relations of corporate industry and are not averse to imposing them on the whole social and political life of the nation.15

This ultimately turned the middle class, once the flagbearer for liberty, individualism, and bourgeois democratic ideals, toward the opposite extreme. Now, Corey wrote, “the struggle to save such property as still survives from the all-consuming maw of monopoly capitalism drives the class to reaction, to negation of the ideals for which it fought in its youth.”16 Its desperation only drove it into the willing arms of authoritarian state capitalism, which could be relied on to restrict labor radicalism.

The perceived threat of a left-labor alliance also drove the “new” middle class toward reaction. For example, Corey suggested, managers and supervisors would become more authoritarian in their treatment of workers as dictated by their corporate owners and bosses. Thus the reactionary consciousness of the middle class as a whole only strengthened as it clung desperately to any hope for a secure caste position in a declining capitalism, thus sharpening class conflict and increasing instability. Caught between monopoly power from above and to the specter of socialist revolution from below, the middle class moved toward fascism, just as it had in Europe. As Corey wrote, “out of the middle class leaps the monster of fascism: the class that once waged revolutionary war on authoritarianism now provides, in a final desperate struggle for survival, the ideology and mass support for a new authoritarianism determined to destroy all remnants, and the very concepts, of liberty, equality and democracy.” Yet the middle class by itself could not bring about fascism:

The reaction of the middle class becomes fascism when it merges with the reaction of the big bourgeoisie, of the magnates of finance capital. A part, even if only a minor part, of all the capitalist relations of production, the middle class is incapable of independent class action: its apparently independent struggle for survival and caste privileges becomes an expression of the needs of dominant capitalism.17

Haider and Corey both understood American fascism as one outcome of the larger crisis of U.S. capitalism; the other was a revolutionary transformation away from capitalism and toward socialism. Though neither occurred, this does not detract from the credibility of their arguments. Based on a careful class analysis of the material conditions in 1934 and 1935, both explained how the general crisis had shaken the Democratic and Republican parties to their respective cores. Democrats had split between the liberal-progressive Roosevelt faction and center-right party elites who, together with likeminded Republicans, formed the American Liberty League in 1934. The following year, opposition to Roosevelt’s “socialist” New Deal won a great victory when the Supreme Court ruled the NRA unconstitutional, which only emboldened the reactionary wing. Yet the rising power of labor and the left, which pushed Roosevelt into the “second” New Deal, helped create an even stronger coalition of forces behind him. Consequently, in 1936, Roosevelt won his first re-election in a landslide, temporarily thwarting his opponents.

More importantly, Haider and Corey pointed directly to the capitalist ruling class as the driving force of American fascism. Though middle-class reaction intensified in 1934 as the economic recovery stalled, fascism would only take hold when merged with the most powerful reactionary elements of monopoly capitalism. Actual events and trends confirmed their analyses. Roosevelt’s massive victory was proof of the dissipation of a middle-class reaction already underway. Senator Huey Long of Louisiana, whose “Share the Wealth” campaign had won the support of millions of small businessmen, salaried employees, struggling farmers, and disaffected workers across the South and elsewhere, was assassinated in September 1935. Efforts to sustain Long’s movement by joining it with followers of the hugely popular anti-Semitic radio priest Charles Coughlin ended with the electoral flop of the Union Party in 1936.

But a powerful Roosevelt coalition pushed the reactionary ruling class further to the right. A year before the election, Interior Secretary Harold L. Ickes had pointed to a “sinister movement…that seeks to impose on our free American institutions a system of hateful fascism,” and which “is composed or at least has the active support of, those who have grown tremendously rich and powerful through the exploitation of not only natural resources, but of men, women and children in America.”18 These were the same figures Roosevelt called “economic royalists” during his reelection campaign, and who were determined to destroy his presidency—and with it, his allies warned, American democracy. Though the Roosevelt coalition enjoyed massive support, he came close to losing it in the winter of 1937–38. A disastrous recession within the Depression forced Roosevelt, by nature a fiscal conservative, to revert to Keynesian solutions in April 1938. Two weeks later, Roosevelt asked Congress to fund a battery of new government agencies to conduct a “thorough study of the concentration of economic power in American industry and the effect of that concentration upon the decline of competition.” Roosevelt opened his request by noting that “unhappy events abroad” had revealed two central truths at home: first, that “the liberty of a democracy is not safe if the people tolerate the growth of private power to a point where it becomes stronger than their democratic state itself. That, in its essence, is fascism—ownership of government by an individual, by a group, or by any other controlling power”; and second, that the same threat would appear in the United States if the “business system does not provide employment and produce and distribute goods in such a way as to sustain an acceptable standard of living.”19

The “Germ” of Fascism

Roosevelt’s warning about the looming fascist threat capped the rising democratic and progressive chorus calling for a “united front” against fascism at home and abroad. It was in this context that The Peril of Fascism by A. B. Magil and Henry Stevens appeared in 1938. Going beyond Haider and Corey, Magil and Stevens looked to the root causes of American fascism, leading them to conclude that “the germ of fascism was inherent within American monopoly capitalism; but it was not until the economic crisis of 1929 that it developed into a definite political force of ominous proportions.”20

Following the official line of the U.S. Communist Party, Magil and Stevens defined fascism as consisting of, among other things, “the open terrorist dictatorship of the most predatory sections of the capitalist class.”22 Moreover, its representatives in the Republican Party had established a seedbed for fascist processes through their modernizing laissez-faire doctrines:

the steady concentration of power in the hands of executive officials and the corresponding diminution in the power of legislative bodies…was encouraged by big business in the Harding, Coolidge and Hoover administrations, which used their enhanced powers in the interest of the monopolies. Commissions, executive officials and judges, appointed by the President and by state governors, and not elected by the people, were vested with unprecedented authority.23

Fascism had already destroyed democratic governments in Italy and Germany, and Magil and Stevens were convinced that a similar outcome in the United States was quite plausible. And to wage a successful struggle against it, they argued, required an understanding of its specific forms. From the start, they emphasized that American fascism would not look the same as it did in Italy and Germany. Moreover, to search for national resemblances based on what some writers called a “fascist minimum” was a mistake.24 “The national peculiarities of each country, its specific economic and social position, its historical traditions,” they wrote, “all play a part in shaping the form that fascist movements and fascism take.” True, fascism was a defining feature of the international order in the 1920s and 1930s, and the rise of two fascist regimes in Europe seemed to indicate a common political model and trajectory. But Americans were unlikely to see “a Man on Horseback riding down Pennsylvania Avenue, or a megalomaniac with a little mustache, making speeches with a big voice.” Rather than seeking “stereotyped formulae” to explain why fascism arose anywhere in the world, it was crucial to recognize its “diverse, and often subtle, forms” in different places.25

Magil and Stevens located the preconditions for fascism earlier in history than either Haider or Corey, in the deepening contradictions of world capitalism since the late nineteenth century, the era of industrialization, monopolies, and imperial expansion. Specifically, they traced the genesis of American fascism back to two long-term developments: (1) the growing concentration and centralization of capital in monopoly and financial forms since the 1880s, all requiring (2) a corresponding expansion of state power, specifically in its ability to manage the interests of its leading firms domestically and to extend their imperial reach. From this emerged the preconditions for fascism—namely, a qualitative advance in the political power of a more concentrated and consolidated ruling class. By the end of the First World War, the United States was the world capitalist hegemon, whose ruling-class interests were best served by the expansion of executive authority over other governing institutions at home and, by extension, a more aggressive imperialism abroad.

According to Magil and Stevens, these developments contributed to the paradox of American fascism. Lacking the visceral nationalism that propelled Hitler to power from below, fascism in the United States was developing from above, by less visible means. Few were equipped to see through what Magil and Stevens called a “masquerade,” in which fascists cleverly concealed themselves and their political and business agendas in conventionally American disguises, winning popular support through appeals to “ideals and slogans in which most Americans still believe—to liberty and freedom” and, when necessary, even declaring their politics as “anti-fascist.” Indeed, as Magil and Stevens argued, the paradox of U.S. fascism was its self-image of “100 per cent Americanism.” Adding to this rhetorical smokescreen were liberals who insisted that the United States was actually “immune” to fascism.26

Magil and Stevens blamed much of this misunderstanding on the naïve consensus of mainstream commentators, who failed to grasp the “class character” of fascism. Some held that fascism was primarily an attempt to establish an authoritarian state standing over “all classes, parties and sectional interests.” Others defined it as “a revolt of the lower middle classes” against capitalist domination from above and the threat of socialist revolution from below. Even socialists like Norman Thomas contended that fascism was a creation of the middle class in its attempt to maintain political independence from the “plutocracy, or ‘the international bankers’” from above and the organized proletariat below. Then again, all put too much emphasis on the “pseudo-radical slogans” that had galvanized the lower middle class and parts of the working class.

Against these interpretations, Magil and Stevens maintained that “neither the propaganda nor the popular following of a political party are adequate criteria for judging its real class nature,” since “the avowed programs of most capitalist parties are notoriously at variance with their real aims.” Even “the most reactionary” among them could, “under certain conditions, succeed in winning support among classes with diametrically opposed interests.” As Marxists, Magil and Stevens went straight to the source: “Judged by its works, and not by its professions of faith, fascism stands forth as a form of rule by finance capital.”27

Magil and Stevens cautioned that the transition from democracy to fascism did not occur in a “single leap,” but rather as the result of “a long process of whittling down democratic rights.” This was especially the case for the United States, where the transition was still in its “preliminary” stages.28 As they saw it, the “germ” of American fascism was inherent in the great boom of 1923–29. Even as production levels rose rapidly, workers’ wages represented “only a small part” of what they produced, leaving them unable to purchase the products of their labor. On this precarious basis, the United States still managed to achieve a “degree of temporary stabilization” in the national economy, offering some stability to other capitalist nations peripheral to U.S. finance capital, mainly in Europe—but only in the short term. The basic contradictions of capitalism were “glaringly revealed” in the 1920s, at least to those few who recognized how the system worked. “With new technical improvements approaching, in some fields the proportions of a technical revolution, the gulf between production and consumption was widening more than ever, dooming a large proportion of the productive system and millions of workers to permanent idleness.” When the crisis came in 1929, all “the flimsy props” of stability and prosperity collapsed in a heap.29

Learning and Fighting

The forgotten works of Haider, Corey, and Magil and Stevens are now critical to our understanding of American fascism, not only for what they tell us about its history, but also about how to fight it. Their class analyses provide a basis for understanding fascism’s national particularities and early forms in the 1920s and 1930s. Most importantly, they help explain the absence of any mass middle-class movement for the formation of a separate fascist party. Of course, none of these writers minimized the rising threat of middle-class reaction, or the possibility that had he lived, the populist demagogue Huey Long might have won the White House in 1940, as he prophesized. Yet as Haider and Corey clearly showed, U.S. fascism was determined and shaped by the reactionary sections of a ruling capitalist class that, if successful, ultimately would have absorbed and redirected middle-class reaction from below. In 1938, Magil and Stevens went further than Haider or Corey by identifying the “germ” of fascism in monopoly capitalism, and specifically in mechanisms of labor repression during the prosperous 1920s that became institutionalized during the crisis decade that followed. However flawed and dated their analyses may appear today, these authors were among the first to seek a materialist basis for the fascist processes unfolding around them. All agreed that the driving force of American fascism was ultimately big business and finance capital.

Just as early American fascism coincided with the rise of the United States to global capitalist hegemony during the interwar period, so does its mature form now appear at a moment of structural crisis and irreversible decline. Magil and Stevens’s “germ” is now fully formed. Trump’s neofascist presidency, the product of a middle-class insurgency, marks the qualitative break with Obama-style neoliberalism and, in Samir Amin’s formulation, the “return of fascism in contemporary capitalism.”

A class analysis is critical if we are to fully understand who put Trump in the White House, and what to expect next. One thing is certain: Trump won the presidency with the solid backing of the white, Republican, evangelical lower-middle class, as well as other Republican middle-class constituencies in the Midwest and the South.30 Equally significant is the shaky partnership Trump has formed with a still mostly pliant Republican-led Congress. On any given day, Republicans may vent about Trump’s impropriety or incompetence, or be forced to address the ongoing controversy surrounding his administration’s ties to Russia. Still, Republican leaders in Congress show no great hesitation in using Trump as their bullying front man in a plan to further expand U.S. military force abroad and to destroy what remains of the welfare state at home.

The American Gleichschaltung, if it indeed occurs, will differ significantly from its German predecessor. It will not be the absolute, top-down process imposed under Hitler, from the time he became chancellor in January 1933 to the plebiscite in July 1934 that granted him total executive power.31 Instead, a parallel process of “bringing into line” in the United States will be less about Trump’s power as president and more about what the Republican establishment can achieve, and already has, at federal, state, and local levels. Trump was elected mainly by a white, middle-class, evangelical core of supporters in the South and Midwest. But his broader political base now consists of those twenty-five states where Republicans have top-to-bottom political power –and seven more where their control over state legislatures negates Democratic governors. Here are the Tea Party forces that preceded Trump in power. In consolidating their base since the 2010 midterm elections, they paved the road for the white middle-class insurgency that delivered Trump to the White House.

But who is really in charge? On the basis of its particular development in the United States, the American Gleichschaltung seems more likely to be a collaboration than a dictatorship—a collective undertaking by those who administer Republican control at all levels of government.32 Though many of the leading figures of financial capital backed Hillary Clinton, these same members of the 1 percent now stand to benefit from the new administration’s attacks on all forms of economic regulation and intervention, as already suggested by the “Trump wave” buoying global stock markets. At long last, the split in the ruling class that in the 1930s characterized the struggle between the progressive Roosevelt faction and the fascist monopolists appears to have been resolved in favor of the latter.33 If Haider, Corey, Magil, and Stevens were alive today, they would likely say that what could have happened then is indeed happening now.

Notes

  1. John Bellamy Foster, “Neofascism in the White House,”Monthly Review 68, no. 11 (April 2017): 1–30.
  2. Gregory Meyerson and I made this argument almost a decade ago, in “Fascism and the Crisis of Pax Americana,”Socialism and Democracy 22, no. 2 (2008): 157–91. Responding to those who saw U.S. fascism in Christian fundamentalism, the neoconservatism of the second Bush administration, or both, we argued that “the intensification of fascist processes would come from the ruling class as a whole,” as the plausible outcome of “a general crisis of Pax Americana, arising from a convergence of developments, long-term and short, pervading the social order and thus rendering much of it dysfunctional and dystopian.”
  3. Walter L. Goldfrank, “Fascism and World Economy,” in Barbara Hockey Kaplan, ed.,Social Change in the Capitalist World Economy (London: Sage, 1978), 75–120.
  4. Georgi Dimitroff,The United Front (New York: International Publishers, 1938), 9–11. Dimitroff reported that “in a more or less developed form, fascist tendencies and the germs of a fascist movement are to be found almost everywhere.” At the same time, he carefully defined fascism as “the open terrorist dictatorship of the most reactionary, most chauvinistic and most imperialist elements of finance capital,” a designation he only applied to those capitalist states where fascism had come to power. For Dimitroff, the “German type” set the benchmark: Hitler’s regime exhibited “bestial chauvinism” and “a government system of political gangsterism,” making it “the spearhead of international counterrevolution” and the “chief instigator of imperialist war.” Thus fascism should be considered neither a form of state power “standing above” the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, nor “a revolt of the petty bourgeoisie which has captured the machinery of state.” Instead, “fascism in power” was the “power of finance capital itself.”
  5. Carmen Haider,Capital and Labor Under Fascism (New York: Columbia University Press, 1930).
  6. Carmen Haider,Do We Want Fascism? (New York: John Day, 1934), 123.
  7. Haider,Do We Want Fascism?, 222.
  8. Haider,Do We Want Fascism?, 227.
  9. Haider,Do We Want Fascism?, 228.
  10. Haider,Do We Want Fascism?, 243.
  11. Haider,Do We Want Fascism?, 244–46.
  12. Haider,Do We Want Fascism?, 247.
  13. His first wasThe Decline of American Capitalism (New York: Covici Friede, 1934), the single most important work of Marxist political economy of the 1930s, which found the roots of the Great Depression in the contradictions of the “New Era” capitalism of the preceding decade.
  14. Lewis Corey,The Crisis of the Middle Class (New York: Covici Friede, 1935), 280.
  15. Corey,Crisis of the Middle Class, 281.
  16. Corey,Crisis of the Middle Class, 282.
  17. Corey,Crisis of the Middle Class, 283.
  18. Albert E. Kahn,High Treason (New York: Hours, 1950), 192–93.
  19. Franklin D. Roosevelt, “Recommendations to the Congress to Curb Monopolies and the Concentration of Economic Power, April 29, 1938,” inThe Public Papers and Addresses of Franklin D. Roosevelt: 1938 Volume, the Continuing Struggle for Liberalism (New York: Random House, 1941), 305–15.
  20. A. B. Magil and Henry Stevens,The Peril of Fascism (New York: International Publishers, 1938), 60. Magil was a seasoned journalist who wrote extensively for the party. My search for information on Stevens came up empty, suggesting that his was most likely anom de plume.
  21. Magil and Stevens,The Peril of Fascism, 36.
  22. Magil and Stevens,The Peril of Fascism, 118.
  23. Magil and Stevens,The Peril of Fascism, 56.
  24. The first study of American fascism based on this approach was by political scientist Arthur Steiner, who in 1935 came up with six characteristics that made up what he called fascism’s “minimum doctrinal standards”: rejection of democracy, dictatorial technique, repression of individual freedom, repression of organized labor, intense nationalism and a reactionary perspective. See Steiner, “Fascism in America?”American Political Science Review 29, no. 5 (1935): 821–30. Steiner concluded that America lacked a “formal Fascism” because all six were not developing simultaneously on a grand enough scale to make a difference.
  25. Magil and Stevens,The Peril of Fascism, 36–37.
  26. Magil and Stevens,The Peril of Fascism, 11–12.
  27. Magil and Stevens,The Peril of Fascism, 14–15, 22.
  28. Dimitroff,The United Front, 43–44. In his report to the Comintern, Dimitroff warned that if the United States went the way of Germany, the world would face an even greater menace than that of National Socialism: “It is a peculiarity of the development of American fascism that at the present stage this fascism comes forward principally in the guise of an opposition to fascism, which it accuses of being an ‘un-American’ tendency imported from abroad. In contradistinction to German fascism, which acts under anti-constitutional slogans, American fascism tries to portray itself as the custodian of the Constitution and ‘American Democracy’. It does not yet represent a directly menacing force. But if it succeeds in penetrating to the wide masses who have become disillusioned with the old bourgeois parties it may become a serious menace in the near future.” And what would that mean if did succeed? “For the mass of working people it would, of course, involve the unrestrained strengthening of the regime of exploitation and the destruction of the working class movement. And what would be the international significance of this success of fascism? As we know, the United States is not Hungary, or Finland, or Bulgaria, or Latvia. The success of fascism in the United States would vitally change the whole international situation.”
  29. Magil and Stevens,The Peril of Fascism, 32–33.
  30. Foster, “Neofascism in the White House,” 1–2; see also the excellent analyses of Trump’s electoral base by Mike Davis, “The Great God Trump and the White Working Class,”Jacobin, February 7, 2017; and Charlie Post, “How The Donald Came To Rule,”Jacobin 24 (2017), 41–48.
  31. For an excellent summary of Hitler’sGleichschaltung, see the new biography by Volker Ullrich,Hitler: Ascent, 1889–1939 (New York: Knopf, 2016), 412–76.
  32. Alexander Burns and Mitch Smith, “State G.O.P. Leaders Move Swiftly as Party Bickers in Congress,”New York Times, February 11, 2017. “If Republicans in the states have taken Mr. Trump as an inspiration, in some respects they are also largely unburdened by his personality and his political whims. Republicans in Congress are plainly struggling to overcome deep internal disagreements and to balance conservative goals with Mr. Trump’s distinctive priorities. But for Republican in state capitals, these are comparatively remote considerations.” In the twenty-five states under full Republican control, lawmakers are moving swiftly to introduce or enact legislation to erode union powers and abortion rights, loosen gun regulations, expand school-choice programs and slash taxes and spending. As one Wisconsin state legislator put it, conservatives “had taken the party’s national victories in November as a directive to ‘shake up’ government,” adding that the movement to do so “has been amped up as a result of Donald Trump being elected president.”
  33. Kate Kelly, “Persuasive Business Leaders Parade Through White House,”New York Times, April 30, 2017.
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