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When Antifascism Comes to America

Just as the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks provoked intellectuals to revisit the question of totalitarianism, so has Donald Trump’s campaign and election led to a new round of discussion on the nature of fascism.

Taken as a whole, the debate about Trumpism’s relation to fascism has accomplished little more than melodrama. Granted, a few scholars have offered useful insights into the deep political impulses that propelled both interwar demagogues and now Trump to power. In a particularly thoughtful appraisal on the History Workshop website, historian of Nazism Jane Caplan seizes on three commonalities between fascism and Trumpism that suggest the value of lumping the two together: both exploited vast crises of political economy; both blamed vulnerable social outsiders for the crises and propagandistically caricatured them as global hate-figures; and both relied on the support of the popular right, challenging the intra-right hegemony of economic élites. But the quality of the discussion mostly has been closer to the bathos on display in neoconservative intellectual Robert Kagan’s widely-discussed Washington Post column, “This is How Fascism Comes to America”—“not with jackboots and salutes,” but rather performed into being by “a television huckster.”

What is most striking about the question of Trumpism’s relation to fascism is how little of use there is to be gleaned from the answer, however one answers. The precise relation of Trump to Depression-era classic fascism is perhaps only directly “usable” history to alt-right neo-fascists. For the rest of the world, the question amounts to asking, how scared should we be? Furthermore, it seems at this point that the likeliest way to answer the question of whether Trump is or is not a fascist is not to keep asking more historians (let alone more Washington Post columnists) but rather to take up the practical question of how to mobilize a new resistance movement.

To take up this question, of how to mobilize against Trumpism, one does well to, yes, look back to the Depression era, but at its antifascism rather than at its fascism.

Those who today would resist and obstruct Trumpism ought to reflect on who were the antifascists and how they created a global opposition to the radicalized right of the Depression-era world. In the wake of Adolf Hitler’s ascent to power, protesters around the world mobilized an antifascist resistance movement and did so without first establishing any consensus on just what did and did not count as fascism. Direct action and mass protest clarified for intellectual discussion the nature of the radicalized right that the antifascists had taken to the streets to oppose. Likewise, in 2017, a confrontation between Trumpism and a self-conscious antifascist opposition would in short order elucidate just how much fascism there is in Trumpism.

How did antifascism become a political force during the Great Depression? Just as Caplan suggests regarding fascism and Trumpism, I think three points about antifascism stand out as relevant.

First, the Depression-era antifascists were populist. If antifascism supplied the stance, or ideology, customized to respond to the rise of fascism, the popular front was its political manifestation, and the “popular” in popular front was meant in the old-fashioned meaning of the word, of the people. The popular front never enjoyed any general popularity in the generic sense. As Eric Hobsbawm wrote, antifascism was better at mobilizing minorities than majorities. But the popular front did derive from the political beliefs, desires, and fears of common people. Though the Cold War-era historiography would have it that the Kremlin orchestrated the popular front, the popular front in the United States was not even the handiwork of Communist Party U.S.A. leadership. Rather, the popular front took form as a common people’s revolt.

The recent North Atlantic revolts on the right have given populism a bad name in academic circles. For some, certainly for today’s wounded liberal establishment, populism is inherently a danger to be snuffed out, an antipluralist politics of rage. This perspective on populism can quickly produce a technocratic-utopian anti-politics that dreams of a time when the managers manage well enough and the policymakers formulate policy expertly enough that populism will retreat into anachronism. In other words, this perspective leads to just the sort of governance that provokes particularly ferocious populist insurgencies, like the sort now unleashed upon the land.

Populism need not be such a terror as Trumpism. Historians, of course, at least used to know this. The radical and profoundly democratic Populists of Gilded-Age America certainly ill fit the schemata laid out by age-of-Trump U.S. and European scholars of populism. Furthermore, to expand the scope of populism’s history beyond the North Atlantic reveals a mercurial political form that often manifests in ways counter to the nativism of Trump, Farage, and the Le Pens. In a recent Journal of Political Ideologies, social theorist Dani Filc usefully counterposes against the “exclusionary populism” of Europe the “inclusive populism” familiar to Latin America.

The animating distinction of populism from other political forms is that it imagines the collective that is “the people” and addresses this imagined community’s interests and beliefs. Political philosopher Étienne Balibar clarifies the elements of populism with a simple analogy: populism is the political project of “the people” in the same way that nationalism is that of “the nation.” From Balibar’s perspective, populism is the work of inventing “the people.” Seen thus, populism can work as a democratic, inclusive counterpoint to the authoritarian, exclusionary politics of nationalism. Indeed, from Balibar’s perspective, Trump appears less a populist and more emphatically a nationalist. But populism can be exclusionary or inclusive, violent or peaceful, cynical or earnest, alt-right or leftist: populism is that which makes its demands in the voice of the people.

This the popular front did. And today an anti-Trumpist resistance that understood itself as the manifestation of the people and worked to make itself genuinely so would generate the same political energy that the popular front produced in the mid-1930s.

Second, the popular front was militant. The “front” in popular front suggests as much. The antifascists of the popular front sought to take the fight to the radical right. They did so creatively, sometimes even playfully, but the antifascists did not simply take stances, they took stands in the streets, facing down fascist gangs and paramilitaries. When blackshirts in Jersey City marched into the black working-class section of town during Fascist Italy’s 1935 mobilization to invade Ethiopia, chanting “Viva Mussolini!,” a three-day street war took hold of the industrial port town. During 1936, the high tide of popular front antifascism, a Negro Worker article described “the increase of people’s-front sentiment in all sections of the country,” yet also explained that Harlem’s particularly acute militancy derived from the previous year’s Woolworth’s riot against police brutality, a rallying point from which to build political power. During that riot, even though local police brutality had provoked the unrest, crowds had chanted, “Down with Mussolini!”

Which speaks to the third point about Depression-era antifascism’s example for today’s resistance: the popular front derived its political energy from its internationalist solidarities. These solidarities were far denser than the Cold Warrior historiography would have them: as nothing but unthinking submission to Stalinist orders (there are still sufficient numbers of Americans who view their politics through the Cold War lens that it is worth repeating tirelessly the point that it is not today an antifascist left that would be susceptible to putting the United States under the spell of the Kremlin). U.S. antifascists saw their struggle as a global one—they understood fascism to be marching on the entire world, they forged solidarities with antifascists the world over, and they saw the fight at home in, say, Jersey City or Harlem as entwined with the fight abroad in, say, Germany, Italy, and Spain. This is why Harlemites such as Salaria Kea and Milton Herndon volunteered to join the International Brigades to fight fascism in the Spanish Civil War.

Populism, militancy, and internationalism: these three principles will put in motion dynamics that will answer many of the other questions facing the anti-Trumpist resistance. The antifascists found that political struggle in the streets, public squares, and factories resolved many of the issues that they couldn’t think their way out of. Today’s resistance to Trumpism doesn’t have an articulate ideology with which to counter the radicalized right. If antifascism offers a useful analog, this is not a flaw. The struggle will open new politics. The resistance begins with the January 20 and 21 protests that will usher in the Trump presidency; the political substance of anti-Trumpism will begin to take shape in those as-yet politically-hollow events. Those who wish to set the course of anti-Trumpism would do well to take part, and in doing have a say in shaping the next politics.

Organizing for these protests has so far centered on Facebook and Twitter; so be it. But one final example offered by the popular front would be that the people need to amass as crowds repeatedly, incessantly. The antifascist crowd, a rough sea of fists thrust upward, is the lasting mythical image that visually defines the popular front. Crowd formation was to mass politics in the age of mass production what Twitter chatter has been to the disembedded politics of the new millenium’s neoliberal order. Organizing and agitating for a new antifascist politics might begin on Facebook; it is unlikely to remain there. Political power remains in the streets.

Joseph Fronczak teaches U.S. and global history at Princeton University. He is writing Everything Is Possible: Antifascism and the Makings of a Global Left during the Great Depression.