Against the Fascist Creep: Mistaken Histories

Alexander Reid Ross, the author of the book Against the Fascist Creep, responds to a review of his book by E.Z. Kay published in Toward Freedom.

Mistaken Histories

E.Z. Kay’s read on my book is an interesting one. Their review feels mixed—partially appreciative of some of the long historical lens I take to analyze fascism both genealogically and ideologically. However, Kay takes me to task for failing to reduce fascism to class dynamics. This criticism comes from both a misunderstanding of fascism and odd assumptions about my own personal history, both of which I hope to have the space to address here.

One of the more awkward aspects of Kay’s review comes amid this statement: “according to my reading of his book, [he] has little to no experience in doing anti-fascist organizing and mobilizing.” I suppose I don’t have to offer my whole radical resumé, but I can help clarify matters a bit. As I wrote in the preface, my first exposure to National Bolshevism came in 2005 when a friend of mine faced muggings and beatings at their hands in Moscow. I tried to help him with security on the walk from the Metro station to our obshchezhitiya (dormitory) but he refused most of my offers. Looking into the subject, I found that the leading National Bolshevik held a column in the local English language expatriot rag, The eXile, which opened my eyes to the avenues of libertinage that fascists would take to exploit punk rock disenfranchisement and decadence.

After returning from Moscow, I engaged in some emergency response to Katrina (though not through the now famous Common Ground efforts) and a coalition to support the people of Darfur before returning to Houston and joining the poetry scene as a fellow traveler. I bounced around from NYC to Barcelona to various points in the US, contributing to various aspects of the anarchist milieu before settling in Tucson in late-2008. For the next two years, I was in the streets marching against Arpaio, SB 1070, the cutting of cultural studies programs, and JT Ready’s National Socialist Movement. As a member of this movement against the white nationalist trifecta of Russell Pearce, Kris Kobach, and JT Ready (along with Arpaio, himself), I was pepper sprayed by police, helped administer aid to pepper spray victims, and worked to assemble a political coalition inclusive of No Mas Muertes and the Samaritans to advocate for global justice.

My child was born in 2011, and I had to cut a lot of organizing out of my life, but continued to research and write about fascism. In 2014, I helped ensure that the “national-anarchists” had no place in Earth First! and helped get people out to the protest against Death In June. The following year, I outed a creeping fascist in the anarchist scene, Michael Schmidt, in a process that took almost a year (if you don’t think outing fascists is an important part of antifascist organizing, you don’t know much about antifascism). Last year, I helped coordinate a coalition of anti-Trump demonstrators in Portland that posed such a threat that Trump decided not to come to our neck of the woods after all. I suppose one wouldn’t see any of this in my book, because I meant for it to inform the public rather than to gush over my own experiences. Anyway, I find it strange that Toward Freedom would publish such a complaint against my work, both academically and in the field.

What Fascists Want

The notion that I have very little organizing experience strangely leads Kay to this testimony: “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.” I stress numerous times that fascists approach power through a few key strategies, namely (1) brutality and ultraviolence; (2) leaving the “fascist ghetto” through radical right parties; (3) ideological distortions regarding left and liberal thought for the sake of entryism and co-optation. Reading my book will expose the fact that the Fascists “got their strength from” the blackshirts; the book’s section on Julius Evola, arguably the most important fascist ideologue of the post-war period, is titled, “Julius Evola and Sacralized Violence”; I examine at length the “cult of violence” and the importance of the “political soldier” to the fascist skinhead movement; and I insist, “It is important not to underplay the violence of the radical right in relation to fascism.” However, I do not neglect to mention hegemony on ideological levels.

Perhaps because Kay’s reading is off-base from the start (recall, “according to my reading of his book, has little to no experience in doing anti-fascist organizing and mobilizing”), I end up agreeing with their position here: “the anti-fascist response should not simply be one of ‘education about reality’ as Ross argues [where?!], but of forming on the ground working-class organizations capable of defending against fascists in the streets, in the courts, and walking the beat.” I embrace antifascist organizing; however, we should add to the notion that “Anti-fascism is a turf war, not a debate” the content of culture and ideology through journals, music scenes, and internet sites.

Antifascists have always done this—e.g., Rock Against Racism—so my perspective here is not controversial. I even express my position in terms of a “turf war” from page 1 of my book: “Against the Fascist Creep will focus on those messy crossovers on the margins of left and right, the ways fascism cultivates a movement, and the ways that the left often unwittingly cedes the space for fascism to creep into the mainstream and radical subcultures.”

Class and Phenomenon

At base, Kay’s critique of my work is one that presents me as an “idealist” and themselves as a “materialist”—“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.”

Yet if we assess my quotation in full, we can see that the statement taken as definitive and universal from Kay’s perspective is actually contextual and conditional in my original piece. Perhaps most importantly, I am directly referring to material conditions in the quotation from which Kay pulls:

“The crossovers that took place during Occupy—particularly those involving Libertarians—were not entirely phenomena of co-optation and infiltration. Instead, they stemmed from a sense of dislocation and alienation, shared by left and right, that were taken in different directions, though sometimes intersecting. Mass movements are conducive to such intersections. Material disenfranchisement motivates the radical right and the left—both the Tea Party and Occupy amplified and organized sentiments that already exist in society.”

Kay’s mistake in chopping off the part where I discuss material conditions stems from a tendency to divorce phenomenology from materialism in general. Although they are different, class and phenomena remain reflexively interconnected. Class is a phenomenon embedded in the realities of geographic location and income, as well as collective labor, which generates the conditions of being together in space and time. The fact that class is produced by collective activity is rendered by Marx through the difference between working class and proletariat—the latter having accepted their conditions as a class.

To quote Kevin Van Meter’s recent elegant text, Guerrillas of Desire, “Seeing class as structure limits the working class to a mere position within the economy rather than a dynamic force.” If we take even such a die-hard Marxist as Lukacs, for instance, such “class consciousness” emerges through one’s engagement with revolutionary praxis, not simply from one’s economic circumstances. Not only Sartre saw the importance of “existential phenomenology” (a la Husserl) as vital to the understanding of modern life but also Lefebvre, the Situationists, and Autonomists went to the point of arguing for the primacy of everyday life in Marxian class analysis. Because class and phenomenon are dialectically intertwined, it becomes very difficult to understand fascism, as a cross-class alliance, strictly on the basis of class.

As Michael Mann observes in Fascists, “Most fascists in the larger movements were neither economically deprived nor particularly middle-class. After 1930 neither Nazis nor Nazi voters were especially bourgeois or petty bourgeois. They drew support from all classes. Italian fascists are still often seen as bourgeois, though the data are poor. Yet the Hungarian and Romanian rank-and-file were more proletarian. [Stanley] Payne’s comprehensive review accepts most of this, yet still tries to save something of middle-class theory. He concludes: ‘[M]iddle class radicalism’ remains ‘one of the most important strands of fascism but is inadequate to provide a general theory.’” Despite Kay’s statement that I “all but [gloss] over the fact that fascism is a movement of a particular class character – that of the petty bourgeoisie,” their assessment of the material content of fascism falls shy of the truth based on income levels, geographic locations, and class identifications of membership rolls and electoral demographics.

Unpacking Left and Right

To unpack that problem, it is worthwhile to quote Kay at length: “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.” This is simply untrue. I start by quoting the reactionary Maurice Barrès who openly insisted that his audience was “declassed”—not homeless, but downwardly mobile. I then stated in two different points that the petite-bourgeoisie and declassed industrial workers of the rust belt have, in recent years, added to the ranks of those who identify as “white working class.” Sociologists generally state that something asserted as “real” is real on some descriptive level, so the social identity of the “white working class” may not be adequate to the terms of proletarian universality but continue to signify a certain association that is not independent of material conditions. At any rate, I am not making a fascist claim; I am showing sectors of the population clearly (and sometimes successfully) targeted for fascist recruitment since the cusp of its inception.

Part of the problem with Kay’s analysis of my work is that the image of fascism they curate combines inaccurate sourcing with outdated strategy. Kay writes of my description of corporatism, “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.” In fact, that quotation comes not from the Comintern, itself, but from Bordiga during the fifth congress as part of an overarching condemnation of “social fascism.” The disastrous logic grouping social democracy in with fascism were clear from the Comintern’s actual stated position, which drew inspiration from Bordiga: “Fascism and social democracy are two edges of the same weapon of the dictatorship of large-scale capitalism.” This position is typically also considered Stalinist, given his proclamation, “Social democracy and fascism are not antipodes but twins.”

Kay insists that, “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.” Yet it is a mistake to consider capitalism a unary force here. Fascism may gain the support of a set of capitalists—Guerín argued it was German heavy industry, while in the US, Ford, GM, Dupont, and the House of Morgan supported the fascists. Yet significant sets of capitalists rejected fascism and supported its opponents, and vice versa. In France, for instance, the liberal Radical Party joined in coalition with the Communist Party while Socialists and Communists broke away to form fascist parties. In the UK, the Conservative Party joined with Labour in an antifascist alliance as Mosley’s fascists gained aristocratic support for “distributist” economic reforms. More recently in the US, big capital from tech to finance opposed the encroaching far right, kicking them out and refusing them services. Many fascists openly advocate struggle against capitalism from the right, hoping to reinstate a system not unlike feudalism with even less respect for human equality. This is why the thesis of “three way fight” provides a more adequate rendition of the antifascist struggle: as fascists struggle against the police and state to seize power, antifascists struggle to repel the fascists, and the police intervene to put down the antifascists.

Lastly, Kay argues that I do not state enough that “fascism is a collection of extreme Right-wing reactionary tendencies. It is unequivocally not a Leftist current” [their emphasis]. I state countless times that fascism draws the left toward the right using messy cross-over points like ecology, but complaints like Kay’s remain argumentative. One should only have to state something once, without contradicting oneself, to be able to express one’s views. Forcing someone to constantly return to a point results in beating the reader over the head to entertain a critic. I stated, beginning with the fourth sentence of my book, “If we consider the left’s embrace of equality as its defining characteristic, fascism remains decisively on the right. However, fascism also embraced aspects of social and ecological movements usually attributed to the left. The shared ideological space cannot be tidily blamed on co-optation, although many fascists embrace co-optation and ‘entryism.’ Instead, fascism emerges as a unique response to the same material conditions. It lies at the extremes of ideology, courting the public through a rejection of conventional conservatism and a call for the return of a golden era.”

This is just some of the nuance missed in Kay’s critique of my work that I hope will open the space for future discussions on the nature of fascism and organized responses to it. Sadly, I do not think that “tightly organized” cadres of street fighters will cure the world of the ills that lead to fascism. As I state in my book, fascism stems from colonial domination and perseveres through the encroachment of capital into gentrifying neighborhoods, using the rhetoric of conquest and “might makes right” to offer an unapologetic option for hipsters who want to keep edgy politics of sustainable localism while displacing local communities of color with ironic indifference. The fascism of the alt-right is a kind of “fascism of the boutiques.” To confront fascism, we must also confront intellectual and moral crises in our society (inclusive of the left)—a process that requires more than the apparent purity of blood letting can offer. While community defense remains important, it must be directed toward putting aside, not fetishizing, our differences in order to accomplish the greater goals of building a better world together in solidarity through mutual aid.