Texas and the F-word

Can fascism be established in the absence of a working class threat? Daniel Lazare believes it is possible

With his usual intellectual flair, Jack Conrad shows conclusively in ‘Misusing the F-word’ why Marxists should insist on “clear, tight, historically rooted definitions” and why “labelling fascist what is not fascist muddles, disarms, betrays the workers’ movement” (Weekly Worker May 27).

He is right. When fascism “degenerate[s] into little more than a political swear word” that leftists feel free to use against anyone they do not like, then, as he puts it, the effect is to blur the difference between ordinary rightists, whose focus is on “parliament and electoralism”, and revolutionary rightists out to replace both with unbridled capitalist savagery based on racism, militarism and some totalitarian form of Führerprinzip.

“Fascism, as a system of government, sees the effective removal of the bourgeoisie from political - not economic - power,” he goes on. “Strutting thugs, psychopathic murderers and rabble-rousers take over the leading offices of state.”

Again, quite correct. But, after promising “to assess the present-day situation”, Conrad offers little beyond the observation that “we have neither a revolutionary nor counterrevolutionary situation” at the moment and that, given that “the working class threat is noticeably absent … no mass left party, no crippling strike wave, no danger of the class struggle running out of control”, a fascist threat is noticeably absent as well.

That is more or less it. It is a bit of a letdown after more than 6,000 words of history and analysis - which lead, moreover, to questions that comrade Conrad does not consider. For instance, Marxists have long assumed that a revolutionary working class threat is a necessary precondition for fascism, as he indicates. They have also long assumed that barbarism and fascism are synonymous, since the latter represents the ultimate bourgeois reaction. But if fascism is not on the horizon, as far as anyone can tell, what kind of barbarism are we facing - some new sub-fascist variety?

Could fascism arise in the absence of a working class threat? Or, conversely, could it be that the bourgeoisie has learned enough from history not to go down the same disastrous path that it did from the March on Rome to the Battle of Berlin? Aware of how brown shirts and swastikas have fallen out of favour, could the ruling class be striving for some sort of bowdlerised authoritarianism that steers clear of what Conrad calls the “F-word”? Or will capitalism’s internal dynamics push it over the edge into out-and-out fascism, regardless of whether the proletariat mobilises or not?

America’s Prussia

Perhaps Texas can help us figure a way out.

Texas is America’s Prussia - a marcher state, whose historical function has been to extend frontiers and roll back the alien hordes. In Prussia, this meant expansionist warfare on the part of the Teutonic Knights against the Latvians, Estonians and other Baltic peoples, beginning in the 13th century. In Texas, it has meant expansionist warfare on the part of white planters and ranchers against Mexicans, Comanches, pro-unionists during the Civil War, and then ‘carpet-baggers’ afterwards (which is to say Republicans, back when they were still the party of Lincoln). Just as heel-clicking salutes came to symbolise Prussian militarism, so cowboy boots, ten-gallon hats and six-guns - highly useful for fighting off native Americans - came to symbolise the Texan variety.

All of which is relevant, because Texas is in the news. On May 30, Democrats walked out of the state legislature to prevent the Republican majority from ramming through the latest weapon in the ultra-right war on democracy: a draconian voting bill that curtails absentee ballots, gives Republican poll-watchers the ability to shut down voting, and escalates punishments for errors or offences by election officials. The obvious intent is not only to make it more difficult to vote, but more difficult to hold an election that will survive Republican disruptions and legal challenges.1

This is on top of recent bills banning abortions after just six weeks of pregnancy and doing away with the state’s handgun permit and training system. Thanks to the first, women may not even know they need an abortion until it is too late. By virtue of the second, ordinary citizens will soon be able to walk into a gun shop, purchase a pistol and holster, strap them on and then go about their merry way, with no-one from government to say otherwise.

With Republican governor Greg Abbott vowing to call the legislature back for a special session so as to push through voting restrictions and more, the stage is set for an ultra-right offensive aimed at turning the clock back to a violent, racist and macho past that Texans are taught to revere from grade school on.

But several things about the offensive stand out. One is that it is not fascist, according to a strict Conradian definition. While plainly a follow-up to the January 6 assault on Congress, it is an effort to achieve the same ends via more normal means. As Hasan Keser recently observed about Turkey’s far-right National Action Party, which has stopped running fascist death squads, now that it reportedly controls the national security apparatus under Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, “who needs gangs, when you control the police, the public prosecutor and the judges?”2 The same goes for Republicans: who needs far-right insurrection, when you control the state legislature, the governorship, plus hundreds of obscure state boards, where the Republican country-club set does business? Storm troopers would just get in the way.

A second thing that stands out about such actions is that they are entirely constitutional. This means that they are not only normal and legalistic, but fully consistent with the letter and spirit of the US constitution - the real constitution, that is, not the ‘living constitution’ that liberals have cooked up, so that like-minded judges can interpret it as freely as they wish. The second amendment thus outlines a sweeping right to bear arms, as growing numbers of constitutional scholars have come to recognise,3 while abortion has long been vulnerable, since it rests on a right of privacy that liberal Supreme Court Justice William O Douglas claimed to discern in various ‘penumbras’ emanating out of the Bill of Rights - a dubious theoretical innovation that has led to endless conservative ridicule. (Rightwing Supreme Court justice Clarence Thomas supposedly has a sign in his office saying, ‘Please do not emanate into the penumbra.’)

As for voting, the constitution makes it essentially clear that federal elections are to take place under state auspices, however hostile those states may be. As article I, section four, puts it, “The times, places and manner of holding elections … shall be prescribed in each state by the legislature thereof.” This makes no sense in terms of modern democracy. But, since it is the law - and an effectively unchangeable law at that - Texas Republicans can hardly be blamed for exercising their constitutional rights to the hilt. It is what the constitution wants them to do, so how can they say no? So Texas Republicans are safely within non-fascist constitutional bounds.

But a third thing that stands out about such laws is their perversity: ie, the fact that they will make the state even more anarchic and dysfunctional than it already is. Considering that a Black Lives Matter protest ended in a deadly shooting in Austin, the state capitol, last summer, because someone thought it would be a cool idea to bring along a military-style assault rifle for protection, the second amendment’s right to bear arms is in growing conflict with the first amendment’s right of free assembly. After all, how can you have a peaceful protest when demonstrators and counter-demonstrators both come armed to the teeth?

But Republicans do not care. If as a result tempers are raised on both sides to boiling point, then the only effect will be to lock in support in a state in which they already have an iron grip. They do not care if women have to forgo an abortion, because the setback to ‘me-too’ feminists will be all the more delicious. They do not care if elections are effectively undone due to endless legal wrangling, because the blow will be devastating to everyone, from the American Civil Liberties Union to the black clergy - all of whom Texas Republicans heartily despise.

Social fallout is irrelevant. All that matters is that Republican enemies get it in the neck. Where fascists use rightwing politics to shatter constitutional norms, Texas Republicans are out to use 18th century constitutionalism to shatter democracy - and that is all that counts.

Close enough

Such is the difference. But if a far-right society is the goal, what do fine points about fascism versus ordinary authoritarianism matter? Workers will still be trapped in the rubble, so who cares whether the bourgeoisie retains a fig leaf of constitutionalism or not?

Texas is just one state among 50. But with similar voter restrictions approved, or about to be approved, in Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Iowa and Montana, it is at the centre of an emerging Republican strategy, aimed at throwing the presidential election into legal turmoil in 2024. Since the seven states in question control more than a fifth of the Electoral College, they may well have the numbers to pull it off. If other states jump on the anti-democratic bandwagon, they will have even more. Instead of exercises in democracy, elections will lead to protracted legal struggles among lawyers and judges, with “we the people” watching helplessly from the sidelines like children in a divorce proceeding. Elections will be de-democratised by being consigned to a growing legal and constitutional thicket.

As Texas goes, so goes not only the US, but a host of authoritarian politicians from Europe to Israel, India and beyond. The more anti-electoralism triumphs inside the global hegemon, the more encouraged those outside will feel to substitute some vague sense of ethno-nationalist communalism - what the German right used to call Volksgemeinschaft - in place of anything resembling political democracy. It may not be fascism exactly. But amid the conflict, chaos and confusion that will undoubtedly ensue, it will be close enough.

As Conrad notes, fascism was an endlessly variegated movement back in the 1920s, 30s and 40s, when Italians, Germans, Spaniards and Romanians all gave it a special national twist. The tendency toward complexity will no doubt continue in the 21st century - not only along national lines, moreover, but along political lines, as each nation comes up with a different mix of legal and extra-legal elements.

As Sinclair Lewis observed in his 1935 dystopian novel, It can’t happen here, the worst fascists were those “who disowned the word ‘fascism’ and preached enslavement to capitalism under the style of constitutional and traditional native American liberty”. Fritz Kuhn’s famous 1939 German-American Bund rally in New York’s Madison Square Garden - which led to a huge Trotskyist-organised protest based on the slogan, “Drive the Nazis out of New York!” - featured a giant portrait of George Washington. While Conrad may long for hard and fast delineations, a quickly changing political situation may not be so obliging. Socialists will have to be fast on their feet in order to precisely assess whatever an ultra-modern radical right decides to serve up.

Indeed, the themes and variations are likely to be endless. If we use as our starting point the “Nixon shock” of August 15 1971 - ie, the day the White House announced that it was abandoning the Bretton Woods gold standard - then the period of global capitalist crisis and reaction is now nearly at the half-century mark. This is longer than the reaction of 1815-48, when the entire European working class seemed to be heading for pauperisation; or the downturn beginning in 1914, which saw the working class pummelled by repeated bouts of war, wage cuts and unemployment until the late 1940s. The post-1971 slump may have started more slowly, but it has proved even more durable and shows no signs of reversing course. The political reaction shows no signs of reversing course either.

So fascism could come in a thousand and one forms. Or it may not come at all if the bourgeoisie figures it can make do with lawyers, rightwing judges and other such buttoned-down sorts. Constitutional norms will be stretched to the breaking point - although whether they will be stretched beyond the breaking point is unknown. Barbarism will grow - although whether the world will actually embrace barbarism the way Germany and Italy did in the 1930s and 40s is unknown as well.

All we know is that the reaction will go very deep and that the working class will be pushed to the wall before it is able to fight back. The choice is still between socialism and barbarism, as Conrad notes. But Texas shows that surprises are in store.

  1. See my ‘Assault on democracy’ Weekly Worker May 20.↩︎

  2. Letters Weekly Worker June 3.↩︎

  3. A vast literature has arisen since the 1980s offering a new view of the second amendment. Highlights include Sanford Levinson’s path-breaking study, ‘The embarrassing second amendment’ Yale Law Journal No637 (1989): digitalcommons.law.yale.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi; and Adam Winkler’s Gunfight: the battle over the right to bear arms in America New York 2011). See also my ‘“We the people” and the lone gunman’: jacobinmag.com/location/united-states.↩︎