Looking at the broad expanse of history as it’s occurred, rather than the kind some people like to make up in order to suit a narrative, it’s pretty clear that material conditions tend to produce reactions on the part of people experiencing them. What happens with those reactions, how they are channeled, then has a lot to do with the specifics of what’s going on in a given society at that juncture in time and space.
There are any number of great historical examples we could use to illustrate this point with. One would be events that took place in the USA in the spring and summer of 1921.
Certain conditions were the same across the country, though they varied by region, and they varied radically in terms of how individuals experienced them, depending on factors like class, race, gender, etc. For example, the rich generally avoided the draft that called men up to serve in the army in World War 1 in Europe.
With the aftermath of World War 1 combined with the Russian Revolution and the US’s participation in the “expedition” to that country in response, the Red Scare was having a serious crescendo, with attacks on union halls across the country, arrests of union members, thousands of deportations of “outside agitators,” and laws passed to prevent more of them from emigrating to the US.
The tabloid press of the day was obsessed with blaming certain groups for all of the country’s problems, and at the time these groups particularly included Black Americans migrating north, people from eastern and southern Europe coming to the US, and “reds” in general.
While large numbers of people moving into a city or area from somewhere else can be destabilizing to a society and create tensions of various sorts, it’s generally much worse when it’s all happening in the aftermath of a very traumatic bloodbath of a war that so many of the men had just experienced (those who came home alive), and in combination with a very high rate of unemployment compounded by a chronic lack of decent housing for so many people.
The conditions I’m outlining are the sorts of conditions that make some people want to find radical solutions to their oppressive situations.
Two events that transpired in two different parts of the country in 1921 couldn’t be more different from each other, aside from both of them involving the actions of organized groups of many thousands of people.
One took place in West Virginia, the other in Oklahoma.
One of the very important ways conditions were different in these respective states is in Oklahoma the radical labor movement in the form of the Working Class Union had been successfully repressed, its leaders in prison or in hiding since their aborted effort to march to Washington, DC in 1917. Whereas in West Virginia the United Mine Workers of America were still fighting hard for the welfare of the working class, in a murderously repressive environment, so much so that the period of 1920-21 in West Virginia became known as the Coal Mine Wars.
My intent here is not to boil down complex events to only two salient factors, but just to say that while there was a racist massacre and systematic destruction of an entire community in Tulsa, Oklahoma, during the same year in West Virginia there was the biggest armed multiracial uprising in US history, against the mine-operator authorities who were holding a hundred union organizers in a prison on no charges. Why such radically different events like this, both in the same year, in the same country, both involving mostly hard-pressed working class white people?
Reality is often too complex for neat little summaries and tidy conclusions to anything that actually happened. But we can be sure that across the USA people were being fed the same pro-war, anti-immigrant, anti-Black, anti-communist propaganda in 1921, by the same sorts of tabloid press outlets. We can be sure that Oklahoma and West Virginia both had a recent past full of red flags and radicalism. We can also be sure that both states were steeped in the same traditions of American racism.
But in one state there was active, above-ground leadership by union members and union officials who were overwhelmingly coming from a conscious, strategically antiracist tradition of organizing the entire working class regardless of skin color or immigration status, whereas in the other state, the forces in society that had that kind of orientation were far more likely to be in prison or in hiding, in 1921.
Maybe if the very consciously multiracial Working Class Union had not been repressed in Oklahoma in 1917, nothing in Tulsa would have gone down differently four years later. But by the same token, it may be no coincidence that the multiracial uprising was in West Virginia, and the racist massacre was in Oklahoma, under the circumstances.
I could keep going with other, similar examples of how things can go very differently in places where circumstances are otherwise very similar. People who are desperate are inclined towards desperate acts of all sorts, but such acts can be radically different from each other, as we can see. For the sake of argument here I’ll just assume we can take it as a given that circumstances make a big difference, and dramatically affect what goes on in a society, even if the society is otherwise made up of very similar people to the next one.
And then, what if the circumstances themselves are radically different? Not just in terms of one place having a still-vibrant labor movement, and the other not? What if there are other major differences, like one society is prosperous and most people are members of unions and cooperatives, while another society is hungry, recently defeated in a war, and suffering from a big disparity between the rich and the poor?
While fascism had serious adherents around the world and certainly throughout Europe and the Americas when the phenomenon hit the world stage in the 1920’s, by the 1930’s, when people driven by the ideology were running governments, repressing all sorts of people, invading other countries, etc., in other countries the fascist phenomenon never became very popular, and never came very close to seizing state power.
Given what we know about where fascism took hold (by means other than being invaded by a fascist power) and where it didn’t, we can see that the combination of prosperity, competent governance, and an active civil society in the form of cooperatives and unions have been the more successfully democratic ones, whereas the ones more susceptible to the national socialist phenomenon are more characterized by economic stratification and political polarization.
Knowing what we know about how things have gone down in the past, it’s pretty obvious that the most effective way to have a happy and stable and relatively free society is to have competent governance, with cooperatives and unions playing a big role in the day-to-day functioning of society. That is to say, having a society like this is the best way to prevent fascism, as well as the best way to drain the swamp in which any national socialist ideologues or organizers may be trying to build a movement.
And what is the best way to rehabilitate a society that has been taken over and run by violent fascists who killed untold numbers of people, invaded their neighbors, etc.? If we put aside notions of justice or vengeance, and just think about how to most effectively get things going in a positive direction, the swamp of resentment, poverty, and powerlessness that fascism can thrive on must be drained, and to do that what we need most of all are those things that make a society happy and functional (competent governance, prosperity, and lots of unions and cooperatives). Which is not to suggest that there’s anything easy about making such a transition, which in reality is a wildly complex phenomenon, like so many things are in the real world. But the basic principle holds, regardless.
These are the kinds of things that come to mind when I think about my fear of a fascist future, and when I ruminate on the history of the past hundred years or so, as I so often do. I am fully capable of joining in with all the people expressing their revulsion for the politics of modern-day figures like Trump, Bolsonaro, Modi, etc. But what interests me much more than speaking out about how horrible some leaders can be (along with some of their supporters), is the notion of figuring out how to build a society where such people never get a majority of the vote (or enough of one to form a ruling coalition) in the first place.
Within the broad spectrum of people involved with activities that we could characterize as those intended to make the world a better place, there are folks organizing unions and cooperatives, folks running for office, doing any number of different kinds of community service or community organizing. People go into professions of various sorts because they want to make the world a better place, whether that be in the field of medicine or politics or the arts or lots of other things.
One of those useful things some people are called to do is to keep tabs on the far right. Others don’t just do research on who’s involved and what they’re doing, but they try to disrupt their networks in various ways, by exposing the identities of members of different groups, getting them fired from their jobs, harassing them online, and protesting them when they make some kind of a public appearance of whatever kind. The people doing this kind of work include many of my friends in many different countries.
Given the proclivity of far right groups to kill people and plot to undermine democratic processes, organize military coups and things like that, it certainly makes sense to know in great detail what they’re up to at any given time. But while we’re doing that, we hopefully also understand that if we lived in an egalitarian, prosperous society characterized by unions and cooperatives, we’d inevitably have far, far fewer angry, violence-prone political extremists to worry about.
There are dangers to doing this kind of research, and the related doxing and harassment of members of the far right. One is that the doxing and harassment activities will just make people angrier and more committed, rather than making them give up and get into other things.
Another danger in getting deeply into this kind of research is that, although undoubtedly important, it’s very useful to the liberal press — those elements of the press that represent the part of the elite that sees the Democratic Party as being fundamentally different from the Republican Party, and whose solutions to our many problems in American society involve voting in more Democrats, a strategy which has proven to be completely ineffective in curtailing the rise of the right, for obvious reasons having to do with the Democratic Party being led by capitalists and imperialists who don’t have the interests of the working class of this or any other country in mind. But whether they are strange bedfellows or comfortable ones, this is why there are so many people who might describe themselves as radicals who are working for very mainstream press outlets doing exposures on the far right, and who thus enjoy an audience far larger than most other radicals doing other kinds of work that isn’t seen as useful to the interests of the Democratic Party elite.
Another danger is the rabbit hole effect. If most of what you’re spending your time on is obsessing about the far right, and perhaps not so much about how we can create a society where the far right doesn’t have such rich soil in which to plant their poison seeds, then it’s easy to start to orient towards just eliminating the problem as the solution. Draining the swamp is a complex procedure. Killing the weeds is easier (although they’ll just keep growing).
My thoughts on this subject today were inspired, such as it is, by receiving a message from a friend, with a screen shot of an exchange on X/Twitter, in which a researcher and media personality on the subject of the far right who is widely considered to be an expert posted the following, to his hundreds of thousands of followers on the platform:
Fixing Reconstruction would mean going back to ensure the Union executes every single Confederate politician and military officer. The same thing would have been necessary to truly stop European fascism after WW2. The undeniable conclusion to the failures of both Reconstruction and Denazification is that we left a lot of people alive who needed to die. And for the record this is not about vengeance. I don’t support politics of vengeance. This is the political equivalent of shooting a rabid dog.
The first part of the post got half a million views, other parts “only” in the low hundreds of thousands. With that many views, it was notable that the number of people who liked the post were in the low thousands, and many of the comments most critical of the post also got the most positive attention. What concerns me more than the people who agreed with this kind of thinking is the kind of reach this kind of post, from someone this prominent, can have.
Although it’s probably really easy to figure out who it is I’m talking about, I’m not going to name him because that’s not the point. If this guy were an isolated case, maybe focusing on who I’m quoting would matter, but unfortunately, he represents what seems to be a fairly popular school of thought among some other “experts” doing the same kind of research and media work. I don’t want to unduly judge someone’s perspective on history based on a few quickly-composed posts on social media. But it’s still undeniably the case that his “undeniable” conclusion about the history of Reconstruction and Denazification is actually very easy to deny, and impossible to justify in any way that makes historical sense, if advancing a society is the goal.
Again, putting aside vengeance or justice, but focusing on practicalities: what’s undeniable, from any reasonable vantage point, is that Reconstruction and Denazification didn’t go far enough. But once you’ve occupied the South, or conquered the Nazis, liberated Europe, and taken over Germany, then, with the massive advantage of state power, there’s a pretty good basis to begin crafting a society where people live as equals, free of slavery or concentration camps.
In the case of the South, after the Union army left, the KKK violently and systematically took over. But before the Union army left, things were going pretty well, with lots of people taking the initiative to form multiracial cooperatives on former slave plantations, under the protection of Union troops. Former Confederate officers, in some cases, actively supported Reconstruction — including one former Confederate general. Black people were getting elected to local, state, and national offices. Much more than in the North, in fact! Which was the rub — a real Reconstruction was only in the cards if the radical wing of the Republican Party controlled the Congress, and that situation didn’t last.
It should have broadened, continued, and gone national! But it didn’t. Would anything have been different if all the former Confederate officers and politicians had been executed? Would there be no more well-trained soldiers and no more astute lawyers prepared to replace those officers and politicians that would have been taken out? (Or perhaps “we” would have to execute all the former Confederate soldiers and lawyers as well, to really get back to Year Zero more successfully?) Would the children and the other family members and friends of the executed be more or less supportive of the new regime after the executions? (Or would “we” need to execute them, too, for good measure?)
For me, European fascism has always been a thing of living memory for people who were a big part of the first thirty years or so of my life. Not so much the Confederacy. But both historical episodes have been of great interest to me to read about, as well, and to understand as deeply as possible. Learning about these episodes for me has admittedly not involved reading a lot of fascist or anti-fascist theory. I’ve never found that stuff to be particularly interesting or illuminating, and it’s often neither. How history happens, and what happens, and trying to figure out why it went that way, is what interests me. And to me, there’s nothing undeniable about the need for more killing, in the wake of a military victory. What is undeniable is the need for a lot of other things.
What’s also very disturbing about the language of shooting rabid dogs is the notion that some people aren’t really human, and should be referred to as animals. I like dogs, but this is not an affectionate reference here. Yes, it’s just some guy on Twitter making edgy statements, but it’s someone who is considered an expert, who has a major mainstream media platform, and hundreds of thousands of followers on social media.
If this is the vanguard of antifascist thinking these days, this is not good. One would hope such people would be working to prevent the next civil war, rather than trying to foment it.
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