The Left at the Arcade

In April a group of activists associated with Students for a Democratic Society published an open letter to members of the DSA or the Democratic Socialists of America.[i] The letter, carried in the pages of The Nation magazine, has received a considerable amount of criticism, including from fellow veterans of the New Left. The letter has rightly been criticized for its paternalistic tone, but much of the critique is couched in a blithe, dismissive language centered on the age of the authors, with the not-so-subtle message that this ‘old guard’ should leave the political stage. This is unfortunate. As I see it, the issue is not the age of the individuals offering the advice as the quality of the advice itself. The national psyche of the United States is deeply ingrained with a cult of youth that should not be indulged in any way. The phrase ‘ok boomer,’ which has recently become a staple of left discourse on social media is one of the most pernicious examples of this culture and its hold over the thinking of a generation of activists born after the post-war boom. It is a sign of the immaturity of the forces coalescing around the DSA and a mistaken belief that vulgar cliquism based on inside-jokes can substitute for real political organizing. Retreat into generational cohorts is always a sign of weakness on the left. However, the main issue here is the content of the open letter and the responses to it.

The fact that the letter’s authors seek to use Max Weber as a cudgel against left DSA activists considering withholding their votes in the upcoming election is an indication of the conservative position they have adopted and the need to find a “legitimate authority” to support it. The problem with Weber is that he was a member of the Pan-German League, a political party whose platform included an anti-Semitic plank calling for the deportation of all Jews from Germany.[ii] Of course, Weber called for caution in 1919 as the authors of the open letter remind us. Weber did not want a Soviet Germany. Weber was not himself an anti-Semite, but he was an ardent nationalist willing to ignore the reactionary direction of German politics in the service of his own integralist goals.[iii] What does that say about the activists trying to use him as a source of political authority today?

These points aside, what is still more unpardonable in the open letter, in my estimation, is the fact that its authors refuse to address the question of practical, organized resistance to fascism. There is no real discussion of the history of Nazism or The Third Reich––which one might find in the work of scholars like Robert Paxton or William Shirer’s classic, first-hand account, Rise and Fall of the Third Reich––or the tasks involved in building an anti-fascist bloc.[iv] Instead, the authors offer what amounts to an empty call for electoral participation in the misguided belief that a Democratic Party victory will stop the far-right. But as any student of history knows, the Nazis never won a majority of the German electorate and elections never halted their march to power.

At no point did the Nazis garner 51 percent of the vote, yet they were still able to impose their dictatorship with all the devastating consequences familiar to us today. Their seizure of power was made possible in part by the peculiarities of the Weimar Republic and its proportional representation system which allowed fringe parties to hold the balance of power and negotiate for important cabinet positions. But as the historian Karl Polanyi instructs us, everywhere fascists came to power in Europe in the 1920s and 1930s, they did so as a minority with the help of establishment conservatives. Reacting to the “stagnation of industrial civilization” and a weakening of the foundations of political power, fascists offered a “new political religion” that pledged to replace the alienation of market society with a regime of “blood and soil” that could restore the bonds of the nation and its vitality.[v] Virtually all of these dynamics are visible in US politics today.

In light of these realities, how does voting for the Democratic Party represent anything other than a delaying tactic in the face of what appears to be a rising tide of reaction driven by deep structural forces? If at least some of the elements in the Trump coalition are incipient fascists as the authors of the open letter fear, how will elections stop them from seizing power once they have a strong enough foothold in the state? Do the authors of the open letter truly believe that a temporary setback such as the loss of a single election will cause these elements to disappear from the body politic or that elections can halt the concentration of executive power already underway for several decades? If so, I fear this is a fantasy. It is also the great tragedy of this letter. It is not the age of the authors; it is the poverty of their ideas.

When it comes to the looming threat of fascism, virtually no one on the left can operate within an immediate frame of reference. The closest historical parallel would be the period from 1918-1945 in Europe. Very few people on the left today were alive during this period or old enough to have been active participants in the struggle. In many ways, this leaves us all in a similar position. The only weapons we have are descriptive accounts of the period and analyses written by opponents of fascism and right-wing populism.[vi] Yet this rich body of history and analysis is precisely what both the authors of this open letter, and sadly, a great many of the writers associated with Jacobin/DSA refuse to meaningfully engage. We have been given warnings from history and countless studies about how The Popular Front and United Front strategies played out in Europe in the early twentieth century.[vii] But instead of addressing this history and the tactical issues flowing from it to refute the charges of the open letter, writers associated with DSAhave generally offered tenuous parallels between the administration of George W. Bush and Donald Trump as a defense of their position.[viii]

Writers associated with the DSA have suggested the danger posed by Trump and his allies is hardly any worse than that of the neoconservatives in the early 2000s and that fears of fascism are overblown or alarmist.[ix] To put it starkly, this is simply not the case. The period in which we are living is not the same as the Bush years. The balance of class forces and elements arrayed around Trump are qualitatively different than the coalition assembled by the neoconservatives and they are far more dangerous. The second Bush administration opened the door to far-right populism with Islamophobia, the War on Terror, and attacks on political dissent at home, but the Trumpist coalition has moved far beyond what even the neoconservatives consider ‘normal politics.’ Witness the incredulous look on the face of Florida governor Jeb Bush in the Republican Primary debates in 2016 as he was mowed down by a style of rhetoric and ideology that even he couldn’t stomach.

Trump’s agenda is not the same as the agenda embraced by the neoconservatives and his active courting of constituencies outside the official channels of power shows the very different kind of politics he hopes to normalize in the United States. Trump represents the interests of a sector of national monopoly capital that is less invested in global financial circuits than a territorial logic of accumulation that embraces heavy industry, natural resource extraction, military spending, and real estate––his own favoured business interest. His “America First” slogan embraces banking and finance insofar as they are the leading edge of American capitalism and the basis of US competitiveness on the global market. But his allegiance to these interests stands in awkward relationship with other elements in his coalition.

Trump’s slogans also appeal to a segment of the declining middle class who regard themselves as ‘legitimate property owners’ threatened by globalization, immigrants, cultural cosmopolitans, and the death of a Fordist economy that once guaranteed them a share of the spoils in the national market. Trump is not “the candidate of Goldman Sachs,” but he strives to balance financialized gains and the growth of the stock market with the prevailing forms of bigotry and national protectionism that speak to the insecurities of this middle stratum and his allies in US-based manufacturing. At a certain point, however, economic instability and tensions between these elements could force him––or more likely in my opinion, a successor––to tilt toward one side of the coalition and shift the overall trajectory of this nationalist project. The collapse of what John Bellamy Foster (2014) calls “monopoly finance capital”[x] in the wake of another Great Recession or Depression could bring a new historic bloc to power, ushering in a “true fascism” with classic characteristics. This prospect is made all the more likely––and frightening in my view––by the general passivity of the left and its weakness in the United States.

The edifice of the state is up for grabs in a way that wasn’t the case fifteen years ago. One only has to think of the gridlock in the US congress and its inability to pass legislation that would arrest the decline of US imperial power or ease the suffering of broad swaths of the working populace. One can also think of the patent refusal of Democrats to oppose any major aspect of Trump’s economic program or mobilization of rabid businessowners against Democratic state governments, amid lockdowns associated with the Covid-19 crisis. What would have been the response of average Americans to the effective shutdown of primary elections in the Bush era? What would have been the response of the left to the levels of voter suppression witnessed in states like Texas and North Carolina in the wake of the suspension of protections linked to The Voting Rights Act? Are Americans still living in the same country as the one that saw mass demonstrations against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan? Where are the visible signs of resistance on that scale? The sad truth is there aren’t any. And as some of the writers in Jacobin have been forced to half-heartedly admit,[xi] it was the push for the left to vote for John Kerry in 2004 and abandon active anti-war organizing that started us down this road. 

Whether supportive of Joe Biden or withholding the vote in the upcoming elections, the writers of the open letter and DSA share what I would describe as a myopic view of the role of elections in capitalist society. To be clear, the problem is not voting or organizing people to vote. The problem is electoral fetishism. Electoral fetishism is one of the key factors that has destroyed the left in the US and other countries. Electoral fetishism is the belief––tacit or otherwise––that voting is the only effective form of political participation and that the balance of forces is decided at the ballot box. Because a centre-left politician can win an election, it follows logically that fascist creep has been stopped and that a ‘regular leader’ in power ensures we are safe. History shows, however, that fascists will not be stopped by elections. Indeed, they don’t even accept these mechanisms as legitimate in the first place. They are a means to an end and fascists have never respected outcomes that go against their wishes.

The real political question we face in the US is how to organize a practical program of defense from below, regardless of what party officials think. Facing up to the threat of the far-right means grasping how this organic crisis and shifting conditions are altering popular consciousness––and not always for the better. How do we present a coherent political narrative that makes sense to people? How do we prevent the takeover of public institutions, where the greatest danger lies? Right now, reactionary forces are making inroads into key spaces and liberals are doing little to stop them. We need a movement that fights to protect schools, universities, hospitals, workplaces, media outlets, and neighbourhoods. At present, however, the political imagination of the left is thoroughly impoverished. Anyone who thinks the Democratic Party can save the US from fascism is engaged in wishful thinking. In Germany and Italy, the majority of people voted for the opponents of fascism until elections were cancelled. This is a tribute to the wisdom of average people and a riposte to past and present efforts to blame the working class for the rise of fascism. But these electoral setbacks did not neutralize the fascist threat because fascists don’t play by the rules. 

The obsession with electoral democracy in the US borders on an almost religious faith. The trouble is fascists don’t share the same faith as the editors of Jacobin or The Nation and they don’t count on ballots like rosaries. Any serious observer surveying the landscape today is acutely aware of the deficiencies of the US left and the conclusions reached by veterans of The New Left and the forces in the DSA. More than twenty years after 9/11, a defining political event that exposed the fundamentally anti-democratic core of the US state, the left is still stuck on the question of electoral participation. Electoral participation is the most basic starting point for politics in liberal society and it is not where most of the major struggles are fought and won. It is certainly part of the larger political picture, but it is not the end-all-be-all. Sadly, for so many, this seems to be the only question that motivates them.[xii] 

One scholar-activist I respect and who is also critical of the open letter, Mike Davis, has called for a struggle at the Democratic Convention and an effort to include a “Medicare for all” provision in the party platform.[xiii] This tactic starts with the assumption that the DNC has not already thoroughly repudiated the policy and that they are willing to make concessions to the Sanders-wing of the party. Everything the DNC has done so far suggests the exact opposite. If anything, the leadership is likely to use this election to teach the left a lesson: there is no future for a socialist agenda, either get with the party line, or get out. Political experience in other countries also suggests this is precisely what could unfold. As was recently uncovered in Britain, Blairite activists in the Labour Party sought to sabotage their own chances to win an election against Theresa May to prevent the formation of a government led by Jeremy Corbyn. What makes the US left believe that the DNC will not adopt the same attitude? To date, Democratic Party officials in the US have behaved no differently than their Social Democratic and Liberal counterparts in Weimar Germany. Treating concessions to organized labor and “socialization of the means of production” as far greater threats than a government led by the Nazis, the Weimar establishment did not appreciate the danger of fascism and actively suppressed the left. And so it is today.

Those sharing my skepticism about elections might be tempted to suggest there is no meaningful difference between a “capitalist democrat” like Joe Biden and a “proto-fascist” like Trump and therefore, that the upcoming elections don’t matter. However, I do think the distinction between the candidates is meaningful, even if we reject electoral fetishism. FDR was not Hitler, and Mussolini was not Leon Blum. These distinctions do matter. The trouble is the authors of the open letter seek to use these differences to paper over the real issue: their refusal to advocate a program of struggle and develop a strategy to block the seizure of power by the far-right. They expect the existing state machinery to protect them and they want a “capitalist democrat” to do all the work. But that’s not going to happen, even in the best-case scenario. 

As many historians have noted, US elites enacted The New Deal programs in the 1930s only because of a disciplined working-class movement led by socialists, communists, and the IWW. The US avoided its own internal fascist threat in part because of this mass mobilization and concessions made by its ruling classes to stave off further radicalization. As progressives who seek space for this type of activity, we should always prefer a regular “capitalist democrat” to a “proto-fascist,” but having the first in office does not guarantee that society won’t get the second. There has to be organization and above all, leverage.

There are some who will say that the anti-fascist experience of the 1920s and 1930s does not apply to the US in the twenty-first century and therefore that the conclusions I reach are based on faulty premises. We don’t have the same industrial working class and trade union movement as in the twentieth century and globalized supply chains have reduced the power exercised by working people. The general strike of the 1920s is not the general strike of the 2020s. There is truth in this. But if the editors of Jacobin and The Nation were at all serious about this situation, they would be debating precisely these issues. What does an anti-fascist strike look like in the twenty-first century? In what types of institutions can it be embedded when the factory is not the same as it once was? What choke points are available if there aren’t any in the sphere of production? Is it in places like the ports? Transit? Institutional spaces? Who can be brought into this political coalition? But again, there is little meaningful discussion.

If there is one thing Americans are good at––despite what the latest crop of Hollywood films might suggest––it is pretending. They love fiction and they hold onto their reifications at all costs. The fantasy that “it can’t happen here,” which Sinclair Lewis warned us against more than eighty years, however, is quickly fading.[xiv] Yet the myth that elections and the Democratic Party are bulwarks against fascism remains strong. Far too many on the left still believe that we can vote our way out of this crisis and that everything will “return to normal.” Contrary to this naively optimistic view, my greatest fear in the coming years is that even if the Democratic nominee wins the next election, the left will behave no differently than it has throughout my political life. The US left behaves like a child whose teacher has suddenly fallen ill right before the mid-term assignment is due. Does the child bless with good fortune and extra time, breathe a heavy sigh of relief and get to work? Of course not. The child heads off to the arcade. It is my opinion the DSA/Jacobin and the authors of the open letter in The Nation have both been at the arcade far too long.

[i] Ross, Robert et al 2020 An Open Letter to the New New Left from the Old New Left. The Nation.

[ii] Wolf, Eric 1999 Envisioning Power: Ideologies of Dominance and Crisis. Berkeley: University of California Press.

[iii] Weber’s nationalism does not mean one cannot learn from his writings. As the Italian autonomistas argued, any serious study of modern politics requires both Marx and Weber. But the left should think twice before drawing any direct lessons for twenty-first century struggles from Weber’s own prescriptions.

[iv] Paxton, Robert 2004 The Anatomy of Fascism. New York: Penguin. Shirer, William 1960 Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. New York: Simon and Schuster.

[v] Polanyi, Karl 1936 The Essence of Fascism: Christianity and the Social Revolution.

—————-1944 The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time. Boston: Beacon Press.

[vi] Trotsky, Leon 1996 [1944] Fascism: What it is and How to Fight it. New York: Pathfinder Press.

Serge, Victor 1923 Witness to the German Revolution. Chicago: Haymarket Books.

Poulantzas, Nicos 1974 Fascism and Dictatorship: The Third International and the Problem of Fascism. London: New Left Books.

Hobsbawn, Eric 2002 Interesting Times: A Twentieth Century Life. London: Abacus.

Dimitrov, Georgi 1935 The Fascist Offensive and The Tasks of the Communist International in the Struggle of the Working Class Against Fascism.

[vii] Mandel, Ernest 1971 Trotsky: The Struggle Against Fascism in Germany. New York: Pathfinder Press.

Dobkowski, Michael and Isidor Walliman 1989 Radical Perspectives on the Rise of Fascism in Germany, 1919-1945. New York: Monthly Review Press.

[viii] Finn, Daniel 2020 An Open Letter from SDS Veterans Haranguing Young Socialists to Back Biden was a Bad Idea. Jacobin magazine. Heideman, Paul 2020 Stop Trying to Shame the Left into Voting for Joe Biden. It’s not Going to Work. Jacobin magazine.

[ix] Heideman’s argument that the recent publication of a New York Times article criticizing Trump as ‘a proto-fascist’ is proof that the claim is false borders on fatuous. Opposition newspapers were still being published in Germany in the early days of Hitler’s chancellorship, even as the Nazis consolidated power. Irrespective of whether one regards Trump as a fascist or not, the fact that media critical of the President has not been totally suppressed in the United States in no way refutes the point that we could be facing a rising fascist threat. One has to actually argue from the material interests and ideologies of the actors in play as well as the role of institutions.

[x] Foster, John Bellamy 2014 The Theory of Monopoly Capital. New York: Monthly Review Press.

[xi] Heideman, Paul 2020 Mass Politics, Not Movementism is the Future of the Left. Jacobin magazine.

[xii] The DSA is a multi-tendency organization stretching from a “Communist Caucus” on the left to US Congressional Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on the right. According to leaders, it is “a big tent party,” which means there is no centralized political line decided by its committee, but in practice, its de facto organ or mouthpiece Jacobin pushes a Social Democracy familiar to most Europeans or UK Labour Party activists, which it combines with at times openly imperialist commentaries on places like Syria, Ukraine, and Hong Kong.

[xiii] Davis, Mike 2020 Misunderstanding the Problem. The Nation. April 27th.

[xiv] Lewis, Sinclair 1935 It Can’t Happen Here. New York: Penguin.

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