(See author Alexander Reid Ross’s response to this book review here.)
Reviewed: Against the Fascist Creep, by Alexander Reid Ross, AK Press, 2017.
What is fascism, really? This question seems to be coming up more and more since the electoral victory of Donald Trump, and most recently following the events in Charlottesville. Alexander Reid Ross, in his book Against the Fascist Creep, defines fascism as the belief in “the national community as an organic body…based on biological race theory or cultural-linguistic ethnocentrism.” While this definition is phenomenologically accurate it neglects the material basis of fascism, which Ross refers to as Leon Trotsky’s analysis: “a cross class alliance between the petite bourgeoisie and the ruling class…intent on destroying the vanguard of the proletariat.” Ross’s attempt to summarize “Leon Trotsky’s analysis” actually proves more apt in describing the objective conditions in which fascism thrives as well as its ultimate consequences for most people – the working-class. Fascism with a capital ‘F’ refers, in this book, to what Ross calls “the original fascist creep” – the age of the Roberto Farinacci’s Italian blackshirts, Mussolini’s rise to power, and Hitler’s subsequent climb to the position of Fuhrer.
This book is a useful guide to the many ideological and subcultural manifestations of the contemporary fascist movement. Detailing the rise of fascism in the early 1900s originating with National Syndicalism, to the fascist infiltration of the skinhead scene in the 1980s, up through the rise the Alt-Right, this book provides the reader with an arsenal of specific yet concisely scripted information about the political and social development of various fascist trends worldwide. His book, Ross writes, also “focuses on those messy crossovers on the margins of left and right and the ways that the left often unwittingly cedes the space for fascism to creep into mainstream and radical subcultures.”
Ross undeniably possesses a plethora of knowledge on the subject of fascism, but according to my reading of his book, has little to no experience in doing anti-fascist organizing and mobilizing. Ross comes to the conclusion more than once that fascists are seeking to control and influence public discourse as their primary means of obtaining or exercising power. Yet what they actually seek is to control the street and various apparatuses of the state. Therefore, the anti-fascist response should not simply be one of “education about reality” as Ross argues, but of forming on the ground working-class organizations capable of defending against fascists in the streets, in the courts, and walking the beat. He lacks a materialist class analysis of history – that is, an understanding of history as the development of objective conditions and corresponding human actions in class struggle – which leads him to, in truly idealist fashion, that fascism grows in power “by seizing the popular narrative and public discourse”, rather than by concrete action that often leads to street level violence and intimidation. As any anti-fascist knows, when fascists are out roaming the streets of our communities, they aren’t engaging in discursive struggle, they’re physically harming and threatening people in order to assert their dominance. Anti-fascism is a turf war, not a debate. Fascists losing control of the popular narrative is a natural result of anti-fascists out mobilizing and out organizing them as we recently saw in Charlottesville.
He follows the lineage of each group in their ideology and personnel make-up to give the reader a picture of a modern fascist movement that is more complex and more interconnected than one may have previously thought. He traces the rise of Mussolini’s National Fascist Party, Hitler’s German National Socialist Workers Party into Fascism in the postwar period; during which many loyal Fascists spread across the globe to sow new seeds of hate, or returned to positions of state power in their home countries, their ultranationalist, racist proclivities still intact. From here Ross offers an account of several protofascist, neofascist, and overtly fascist trends to emerge both in Europe and the United States, from the 1950s up to present day, which share common ancestry with this “original fascist creep,” for instance: Nouvelle Droite, Christian Identity, National Bolshevism, and Wise Use.
What may be of particular interest to American readers is Ross’s profile of American far-Right populism. He explores in detail the patriot/militia movement and its fairly immediate ties to white supremacy and the extreme Right. In one of Ross’s beautifully concise history lessons he tells us of a Right-wing politician and war veteran named William Potter Gale. “Gale created his own paramilitary group called the rangers in 1959,” Ross writes. “The rangers inspired a larger group…known as the Minutemen… Tied to Christian Identity, the John Birch Society, and the Klan, the Minutemen kept a kill list of some 1,500 people associated with what they called the ‘Communist hidden government.’” Out of this alliance came the foundation for the modern Right-wing militia movement “[i]nformed by the fascist tradition’s take on the settler-colonial myth of the pioneer of the nineteenth century…”.
Given the recent behavior we’ve seen from militia groups in protecting Alt-Right demonstrations this summer in Berkeley, Boston, and elsewhere, this connection may not be surprising to many; however, the book’s elucidation of how integral white supremacist organizations were to the initial germination of the patriot/militia movement is an important piece of history for anti-fascists to understand. Especially since both aforementioned trends happen to share several key writers, organizers, politicians and intellectual leaders with the GOP (such as Republican Representatives Trey Gowdy and Ron Paul), a fact to be mindful of in the Trump era.
One of Ross’s most alarming examples of the “fascist creep” is attempts by fascists to infiltrate and co-opt Leftist social movements. By superficially blurring the lines between Left and Right with vague rhetoric of “fighting the system,” fascists can take advantage of many Leftists’ and Anarchists’ lack of a materialist class-based analysis. Ross identified this creep in wide ranging circles from Occupy Wall Street to Green Anarchism to Autonomists and squatters. The examples he gives of the supposed “Left-to-Right” drift has more to do with the reactionary tendencies, political ignorance, or both, on the part of certain individuals and misguided groups than any actual shared ground between the revolutionary Left and the fascist movement.
For example, Ross writes of the front man for neofolk band Death in June and former Socialist, Douglas Pearce: “Pearce became increasingly interested in [early Nazis] and what he saw as the complicated shades of grey between the conventional left and the Nazi’s purported left-wing.” Pearce would later go on to join Croatian fascists in their brutal 1990s civil war. A few pages later Ross quotes former Red Army Faction soldier turned fascist, Horst Mahler, as saying “We are mistaken if we think that we can stamp every problem of political orientation with ‘Left’ and ‘Right.’ It doesn’t work anymore.” But it comes as no surprise that two former Leftists who switched sides to become fascists are both wrong about what actually separates the Left and the Right.
Such a false claim among fascists could be traced back to Gregor and Otto Strasser, two brothers instrumental in organizing the Nazi movement during Hitler’s stint in prison when the party was banned. The Strassers claimed to be socialists who “advocated neither capitalism nor Marxism, but…a society organized…in a natural hierarchy based on merit” with “solidarity between workers and leaders.” In fact, this describes something deeply capitalist in which there would obviously still exist a relation of economic exploitation of “workers” by “leaders” with a key difference being, as Ross puts it, the “organic integration of syndicates [labor unions] and corporations…”
This is the small town, friendly neighborhood capitalism of the petty bourgeoisie, the middle-class, in which business owners are free to continue exploiting workers with the added benefit of having only those “‘trade unions of industrial and agricultural workers which it then leads into practical collaboration with the employers organizations’” as stated by the Comintern in its condemnation of both Fascism and bourgeois democracy as leading the working-class to act against its own interests. Ross then goes on to describe a program written by Strasser which included a proposal to deport any “Jews who immigrated to Germany after 1919.”
This fascist politics of “merging of Left and Right” is in reality a reactionary and racist ploy to strip workers of their rights and institute strict border controls in the interest of an all-white pan-European state. It is an augmentation of, not an alternative to, already existing capitalist society. Though there have been many pseudo-Left fascist trends since then, they all share an important trait in common with the aforementioned reactionary babbling of the Strasser brothers: they are Leftist in rhetoric and in vague phrase mongering, but in no other aspect. Any anti-fascist worth their weight in copies of Ross’s book should be able to easily see through a fascist group’s sloganeering of terms like “leaderless resistance” and “horizontal structure” as purely opportunistic.
That the Strasserite fascists represent any sort of a “Left-wing of fascism” is completely and wholly false, a fact that Ross does not mention nearly enough in the book and actually at certain points himself speaks with a sort of blurred-line tone about fascists supposedly “combining elements of the Left and the Right.” At one point Ross does clearly state that “…the conflation and confusion of right- and left-wing groups was a deliberate tactic by fascists to delegitimize the left”, and that “really, Strasser was an anti-semitic reactionary.” However, let’s state it very clearly right here to make up for the many places where Ross forgot to do so: fascism is a collection of extreme Right-wing reactionary tendencies. It is unequivocally not a Leftist current.
When economic crisis grips a nation, when contradictions within the ruling class and the state create instability and social upheaval, fascists act as the foot soldiers of capitalism. Their function is to disrupt and destroy efforts on the part of the working-class and oppressed masses to organize against their miserable conditions.
Ross’s major shortcoming in this book is his total misunderstanding of class and how it relates to creeping fascism. He more than once describes people who have become unemployed as being “declassed” and thus more in line with fascist ideas. He makes such statements both about the decadent petty bourgeois intelligentsia as well as unemployed workers. Here he makes the fascists’ argument for them. Fascist ideology rest on the premise that one’s (white) ethnicity or nation is where one’s true interests and identity lies, rather than one’s class. This idea is bourgeois because it runs counter to the idea of collective working-class organization; it is reactionary because fascists’ attempts at appealing to racist working-class whites ignore an important fact: there is no “white working-class,” the working-class is a multi-ethnic, multicultural, international mass comprised of people, employed or not, who sell their labor-power to subsist and do not possess ownership over their means subsistence. They make up most of the world’s population.
Ross’s incorrect class analysis leads to two other substantial disappointments in the book: he primarily proposes discourse and education for combatting the fascist creep rather than a program of on-the-ground anti-fascist organizing and mobilizing. In his conclusion, he mimics an optimistic yet condescending high school social studies teacher: “In order to make appropriate decisions about their futures people must be informed. Through a careful understanding of reality, people can make their own decisions in life and foster the imagination necessary to help build the future.” It is not enough to simply “inform” people to have an “understanding of reality.” People must be tightly organized and mobilized to action.
And he all but glosses over the fact that fascism is a movement of a particular class character – that of the petty bourgeoisie: the insecure middle-class who see their interests as opposed to those of the working-class, yet for whom economic crisis can mean being forced into it. This anxiety, particularly for whites, creates an increased hostility to struggling collectively alongside the working-class and thus a tighter alignment with the ruling-class (as we have just seen in the United States with the grassroots movement of Trump supporters, most of whom are actually not working-class but petty bourgeois).
I found this book to be a good source of factual information about the history of fascism and its various ideological trends worldwide. Ross gives the reader a sense of an intricate international fascism by scrutinizing in depth the social networks of fascists going back to the early 1900s in France, up to the modern-day Alt-Right. Ross has produced here a fantastic and concise phenomenology. As a guide for actually confronting the fascist creep, Ross falls far short. He offers no analysis which I found useful or even all that accurate. I would recommend this book to folks who are interested in learning about the ins and outs of fascist organizations and personalities through the ages, but I would warn the reader not to heed the flimsy, vague, and idealistic conclusions of the author. For practical, actionable conclusions you must read books by revolutionaries – for example, Huey P. Newton, Assata Shakur, and Big Bill Haywood – not academics.
E.Z. Kay has been involved in anti-fascist efforts around the country for several years and is also active in the labor movement. He is one of the J20 defendants arrested at Donald Trump’s presidential inauguration. Despite the ongoing court case he continues to write and organize against fascism.