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Red Theory: Bourgeois democracy and fascism

By J. Sykes

Victorious members of the Soviet Red Army drop captured fascist banners at the b

Communists have a proud history of fighting on the front lines of the resistance to fascism, from the International Brigades in Spain, to the Antifascist Resistance in occupied Europe, to the heroic struggle of the Soviet people to defend the USSR and defeat Nazi Germany. The Soviets liberated the survivors of the death camps and led the assault on Berlin. From that practice, theory has been developed to analyze what fascism is, how it develops, and how it should be fought.

It is common on the left to hear the United States described as fascist. This is especially true among the youth and some petty bourgeois radicals, who want to emphasize how terrible and repressive the U.S. really is. But is this an accurate description of the class enemy in the United States, and what difference does it make?

First, let’s define what fascism is. The commonly accepted definition among Marxist-Leninists is the one used by the Communist International. The Thirteenth Plenum of the Executive Committee of the Communist International (ECCI), in 1933, defined fascism in power as “the open terrorist dictatorship of the most reactionary, most chauvinistic and most imperialist elements of finance capital.”

This is different from some other definitions of fascism popular among the left today. Take, for example, the definition given by George Jackson in his book Blood In My Eye. He says, “But both Marxists and non-Marxists alike can agree on at least two of its general factors: its capitalist orientation and its anti-labor, anti-class nature.” From this, Jackson concludes, “these two factors almost by themselves identify the U.S. as a fascist-corporative state.”

Many people take up this view. People rightly see that the United States is repressive, and so they call it fascist, almost as a rhetorical or agitational device, or as an invective against it. Indeed, fascism is capitalist and anti-labor, but there’s more to it than just that. Marxists must be precise and scientific, because our practical and strategic orientation hinges on our scientific analysis of current conditions. The question, “What is to be done?” has to be answered based on these concrete conditions.

Between the ECCI definition and Jackson’s there are some very important differences. Most importantly, Jackson concludes that the U.S. is currently fascist. But if we look concretely and historically at the U.S., the Communist International definition seems to have a better grip on the material reality and historical development on how bourgeois democracy transforms into fascism, as a result of the class struggle.

The problem is that Jackson’s definition isn’t qualitatively different from bourgeois democracy in any stage of its history. Bourgeois democracy has always been a democracy for the rich, and a repressive dictatorship for the rest of us. U.S. capitalism, since its inception, has relied on genocide and national oppression, as well brutal repression of any movements for progressive change. It has always had a capitalist and anti-labor orientation. What good is to call the U.S. fascist if fascism isn’t qualitatively different from bourgeois democracy generally?

The main difference between these two ways of looking at fascism turns around the point of “open terrorist dictatorship.” Certainly, if we look at the fascist states of the 20th century, such as in Italy and Germany, we see something qualitatively different than what we have here. That doesn’t describe our current conditions. Currently, the ruling class can suppress the rights of people, but has to resort to some legal maneuvers to do so. With fascism, the gloves come off. Repression is no longer hidden behind a veil of bourgeois legal norms. “Open terrorist dictatorship” means that legal, above-ground organizing is practically impossible, and the entire resistance to fascism, both the communists and the broader united front, must operate underground in conditions of covertness and illegality.

There is a dialectical relationship between bourgeois democracy and fascism. Fascism is latent in imperialist countries. In its dealings with its colonies and neo-colonies, open terrorist dictatorship is often the principal, or dominant aspect of the contradiction. But within the United States, bourgeois democracy is the principal aspect. This contradiction is largely driven by the contradiction between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie.

Since the class struggle drives this contradiction, and the revolutionary movement is relatively weak, the ruling class doesn’t need to ramp up repression and resort to fascism at this moment. Certainly, it isn’t the case that communist organization has been outlawed and forced underground. And there’s a good reason why it hasn’t been. Simply put, if the monopoly capitalist class doesn’t need to resort to fascism, they would prefer not to. The revolutionary movement in the United States is not strong enough for the U.S. ruling class to outlaw it and resort to open violence against its leaders and militants.

Stalin, in his Report to the 17th Congress of CPSU in 1934, put it like this:

“In this connection the victory of fascism in Germany must be regarded not only as a symptom of the weakness of the working class and a result of the by the betrayals of the working class by Social-Democracy, which paved the way for fascism; it must also be regarded as a sign of weakness of the bourgeois, a sign that the bourgeois is no longer able to rule by the old methods of parliamentary and bourgeois democracy, and, as a consequence, is compelled in its home policy to resort to terrorist methods of rule — as a sign it is no longer to find a way out of the present situation on the basis of a peaceful foreign policy, and, as a consequence, is compelled to resort to a policy of war.”

The ruling class will not resort to fascism until the point is reached when it can no longer rule in the old way, because the movement of the working class and oppressed nationalities has become so well organized, so militant, and so powerful a threat to the monopoly capitalist class, that the ruling class can see the danger of their downfall and defeat before them.

Currently, there are fascist elements among the U.S. reactionaries, many of whom have been emboldened by Trump. Some of these elements even attempted to seize power on January 6, 2021, at the U.S. Capitol. These elements should be taken seriously and resisted by any means necessary. It is certainly possible that the most reactionary elements of finance capital in the United States will resort to fascism, driven by the development of the revolutionary movement to desperation, and of course we should prepare for that eventuality.

The far-right paramilitary groups like the Oath Keepers and the Proud Boys, along with their enablers within the “Make America Great Again” wing that currently dominates the GOP, didn’t rise up so boldly out of nowhere. The current rise in reaction is a response to the growing progressive current among the masses, most sharply demonstrated by the uprisings in cities across the country after the police killing of George Floyd in 2020. The George Floyd uprisings pushed the peoples struggles forward in ways we haven’t seen in decades. As the people rose up in anger, we saw a great increase in reactionary violence against the people from both state and non-state forces. As the level of struggle and organization among the broad masses of the people increases, so too will the forces of reaction likely escalate.

But as things stand it only confuses the issue to mischaracterize the current state of bourgeois democracy as fascism in power when it clearly isn’t. Fascism isn’t just reaction in general. It is reaction of a particular type. We don’t need the invective of fascism to know that we should do everything we can to overthrow this horrible system of exploitation, oppression, waste and war. Bourgeois democracy is bad enough.

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