Nov 13, 2021

Understanding A22 PDX: The Scraps

The following is part of a series of responses to the events of August 22, 2001 (A22) in Portland, Oregon. We support any and all genuine and honest discussion that is of use to our movements regardless of whether we agree with what is raised and put forward. We also understand that real debate can be sharp and at times raw. We will attempt to be conscious of this and as stated previously, a fundamental part of our guidelines are based on 

principled responses, not personal attacks or sectarian squabbles (or, for that matter, uncritical boosterism). We also ask that submissions take into consideration issues of movement security, remembering that both the fascists and the state will be searching for faultiness to divide our movements.  

We appreciate the responses we have received and look forward to those others working to contribute to this discussion. – 3WF



The Scraps


by Morris Beckman

But this gets back to a more important question, one that supersedes the question of effective antifascism and gets to something more fundamental: what was the goal of the counter-organizing on August 22nd? What does it look like to win?
Proud Boys and their allies at the abandoned Kmart near Parkrose.
Photo courtesy of The Oregonian.

As I watched the final confrontations on August 22nd, a few questions started to race through my mind. We were within earshot of Parkrose High School, the most diverse educational center in the otherwise largely white city of Portland, in the solidly working-class area of Parkrose. While surely on the path of gentrification, this neighborhood has largely remained a place where working families can buy a house, where union signs outpace American flags, and where people treat the houseless encampments as neighbors (with more or less success). That is to say that it is old Portland modernized: it has the working-class sensibility but with a slightly more left orientation and actual diversity rather than the tokenizing grad-school variety.

We were late into the afternoon and anything that could have been properly called a form of antifascist organizing had largely come to an end. Instead these were the final scraps: the left-overs yelling at each other, unclear what the function of the confrontation even was. This was the end of what, from other angles, had been referred to as a rousing success. The long and short of it is that the Proud Boys (amongst other far-right cliques) tried to hold a rally in the city center. Antifascist groups, including Rose City Antifa, mobilized a counter-demonstration, progressive groups staged a press conference, and the pressure ostensibly worked: the Proud Boys moved their rally out of the city center. Instead, they pushed it to the edge of Parkrose, where they staged a humiliating occupation in the parking lot of an abandoned K-Mart.

The counter-demonstration continued with the expected party vibe, ensuring that the far-right wouldn’t change their mind and try to filter in and attack protesters. But as the hours ticked away, a few people were unsatisfied with this and, in an incredibly defensible point, decided that leaving the far-right to the diverse Parkrose neighborhood was unconscionable. While the black bloc was here socializing the Proud Boys could be doing God-knows-what surrounded by working class communities of color. So small, uncoordinated, autonomous groups of antifascists began heading over to the Parkrose neighborhoods with confrontation in mind.
We were late into the afternoon and anything that could have been properly called a form of antifascist organizing had largely come to an end. Instead these were the final scraps: the left-overs yelling at each other, unclear what the function of the confrontation even was. This was the end of what, from other angles, had been referred to as a rousing success.
And people were not wrong to be concerned: the Proud Boys attacked press and counter-demonstrators, flipping over a van and reveling in their violence. But as groups came to engage in physical confrontation, it became clear that they did not have the numbers and had not arrived in time to disrupt anything of substance. Instead, they were there for the scraps, and this amounted to shouting matches with disturbed individuals barely grasping the political nature of the rally they just attended.

Tactical questions are often framed as moral ones, so we should be clear that those antifascists who showed up did so for legitimate reasons. More than this, there is a clear strategic argument to be made for moving over to Parkrose. The question we should ask is, why did it not go better? What could be different?

A basic assessment of effectiveness should be the bedrock of any form of organizing. (Pluses and deltas, anybody?) Without that, the subjective experience of attendees is preferenced over the results they claim to seek.

Sometimes it is important to break ideas down to their component parts, so it is worthwhile asking what antifascism is. While it is, well, against fascism, there is more at play when someone is using the term in the kind of context you often see in places like Portland, Oregon. It means strategies up to, and including, militant antifascism, which itself has a spectrum and a whole backpack full of tactics. But most importantly, antifascism is about defense above conversion: people need to be safe first, you could try and flip a Proud Boy later (if such a thing is possible). Antifascism suggests that disruption and “no platforming” are useful because when fascist groups have their functionality tampered with they necessarily begin to collapse their effectiveness and then, noting the first principle, safety is achieved. Another piece of this is the “we go where they go” idea, which is to say that fascists should not have the ability to move around antifascists and continue their operation.
Tactical questions are often framed as moral ones, so we should be clear that those antifascists who showed up did so for legitimate reasons. More than this, there is a clear strategic argument to be made for moving over to Parkrose. The question we should ask is, why did it not go better? What could be different?
With that last question in mind, a problem emerges with August 22nd: the far-right changed locations, effectively circumventing the opposition. This was exactly the situation critiqued by autonomous antifascists who came looking for them.

But this gets back to a more important question, one that supersedes the question of effective antifascism and gets to something more fundamental: what was the goal of the counter-organizing on August 22nd? What does it look like to win?

The first goal was clear, to get the Proud Boys out of their public event space, and it was an unimpeachable success. For years the far-right has staged these frenzied spectacles smack in the center of downtown Portland and has literally left blood stains on the concrete. It took years to build up the counter-organizing enough to create a spectre so large that antifascists did not even have to confront the far-right. Just the fear of the size of the counter-demonstration made them cancel their plans. This is the best-case scenario.

Proud Boys and allies at the abandoned Kmart near Parkrose.
Photo courtesy of The Oregonian.

“This is always the best case scenario. The worst case scenario is that we actually do have to get confrontational! We don't want that,” said Daryle Lamont Jenkins of the One People’s Project, who was at the August 22nd counter-demonstration, and referenced a New York event a couple of weeks earlier where antifascists held the line but refused to take the bait and get into visible fights with the Proud Boys. “We have to show that we are above their B.S... because when we confront them it's the last resort.”

But if we zoom out and see that the rally continued anyway, where is the victory? Community organizing is not built on absolutes, it is built on practical and measurable successes. In that way, the moving of the rally is clearly a measurable success. They have less access to people, the location they ended up in does not interface quite as much as the earlier location did. This is not the grand success a total cancelation would have been, but it is not clear whether that level of success is on the table. Instead, the moving of the event may have been as much as was practically possible in terms of pre-event pressure. That does not, however, answer the question of “going where they go.”

This question has to still be answered by a measure of goals. At the downtown rally location, the crowd was ready for there to be an incursion by the far-right. This left many activists on edge, which is behind a number of reports of internal squabbling and altercations with unaffiliated street preachers or random passersby. The question is not if those people are offensive—many certainly are—but whether they are fascists who require antifascism as a response. If they aren’t, then what’s the point?

In Parkrose, the same question remains. If the goal is to “no platform” the far-right, then an assessment has to be made as to whether or not that is possible. Instigating fights can get you and others hurt, and while that is not the ethical responsibility of antifascists (the far-right is always to blame for their violence, full stop), it is still something to be considered. If you do not have the numbers to go where the far-right is rallying and successfully counter-demonstrate it so as to stop its functionality, there is a valid question about whether or not it should happen. This is the kind of question that antifascist organizations ask constantly when making plans, and they make cost/benefit equations when making choices. They do not, for example, try to take on the far-right in situations where they would necessarily get their members or supporters hurt. This is exactly the choice that was made on August 30th of last year when the Proud Boys held a rally at Delta Park in Portland. The location is hard to get in and out of, and it was determined that the Proud Boys would have been more than equipped to harm a community counter-demonstration if they tried to crowd into the same space. So they held the counter-demonstration over a mile away, still close enough to respond if the Proud Boys strayed from their location and into the city looking for a fight. At the location itself, the Proud Boys attacked journalists and some reporters even had to come with armed security.

The question of confrontation is not a moral one, it is a practical one. Confrontation is not a chance for individual transcendence, to feel righteous or alive through action, its purpose is to stop people from hurting others and from growing their movement. But when only a small handful arrives and is unable to do anything other than act as a punching bags for fascists, it helps them build up their propaganda apparatus, claim victory, and possibly even recruit. It can have the opposite effect, even if the intention was to “go where they go.”

Autonomy is a critical piece of all social movements, and no formal organization should control a horizontal mass of people. Organizers rely on activists in the periphery who make up the majority of a given action—so no one expects everyone to act in perfect concert. But there is a clear disparity between the people who have done this work for years and those who have arrived with little experience and insist on calling shots for their “affinity group.” Just because you can do it doesn’t mean you are effective, warranted, or helpful, and this is a key piece of the problem. Autonomous organizing, which breaks away from collective responsibility and accountability, can help empower people. It can also send a fundamentally liberal message that individual orientations, emotions, and satisfaction is the same thing as revolutionary organizing. It can mean that your own ephemeral feeling of liberation (which is just a feeling since it is hardly upheld by material circumstances) is more important than the success of the larger social movement. There is a valid question about whether or not the Parkrose neighborhood should have been protected, but the equally valid question is whether or not the people showing up were in any position to defend it. Instead, several of the people moved into positions they weren’t able to defend, without the skills to do it, and ignited conflicts they had to be bailed out of.

In the end, several people spent their time yelling back and forth with people who had no agency in the movement and made up no constituency: none of it mattered. In those cases, the anger that percolates can turn on itself and become corrosive. A journalist was attacked in what could be interpreted as gender-based violence given the slurs that the attackers used. The question of that journalist is probably one for another article, there are certainly reasons that reporters taking photos are a problem, but what does this serve? Did this help defend Parkrose? At a moment when Antifa has become a scare word for the uninitiated, what did this do? Where is the goal?

Antifascism should not be about personal transformation. It isn’t about “doing your best.” You aren’t there to “join the fight, “do your part,” “take a stand,” or “make your voice heard.” You’re there to win. That means being strategic at all times, working backward from set goals. A screaming match may be effective, you cannot prescribe that in the abstract. But it also often isn’t since it’s unclear how any of this leads down the path to goals. Undermining them, going under the radar to combust their functionality, figuring out the way to really do damage, that is the task. We don’t come to antifascism to know ourselves. We came to win. Without that in mind, we have already lost. I, for one, have no interest in being heard or celebrating my autonomy. I have one goal in mind: destroy the far-right. And I work backwards from that. If I can’t describe how a series of tactics leads to the goal, in a way that builds on evidence and history, then it sets us back rather than takes us forward.
Autonomy is a critical piece of all social movements, and no formal organization should control a horizontal mass of people. Organizers rely on activists in the periphery who make up the majority of a given action—so no one expects everyone to act in perfect concert. But there is a clear disparity between the people who have done this work for years and those who have arrived with little experience and insist on calling shots for their “affinity group.” Just because you can do it doesn’t mean you are effective, warranted, or helpful, and this is a key piece of the problem. Autonomous organizing, which breaks away from collective responsibility and accountability, can help empower people. It can also send a fundamentally liberal message that individual orientations, emotions, and satisfaction is the same thing as revolutionary organizing. It can mean that your own ephemeral feeling of liberation (which is just a feeling since it is hardly upheld by material circumstances) is more important than the success of the larger social movement. There is a valid question about whether or not the Parkrose neighborhood should have been protected, but the equally valid question is whether or not the people showing up were in any position to defend it. Instead, several of the people moved into positions they weren’t able to defend, without the skills to do it, and ignited conflicts they had to be bailed out of.
There is a process whereby well thought out theoretical and practical radical ideas leave the context in which they were created and are then sometimes reinterpreted in the clumsiest and most confusing way possible. “We go where they go” is a fundamental piece of antifascism, but only when going there wins something and there is enough of a "we" to do something. Antifascism itself is only useful when we are up against fascists, not passersby with stupid bumper stickers. If we want to win, and I really hope that is the actual intent here, we have to know what winning is and apply just the basic modicum of responsibility necessary to take a plan to fruition. 

Author Bio: Morris Beckman is an antifascist writer and organizer.

Related posts:

Understanding A22 PDX: discussion and analysis for the antifascist movements

Understanding A22 PDX: Three Responses

Understanding A22 PDX: Never Let the Nazis Have the Story! The Narrative Aspect of Conflict

Understanding A22 PDX: Broader implications for militant movements

Understanding A22 PDX: Response from a Comrade, "We Go Where They Go" as strategy for militant antifascism

There Will Always Be More Of Us: Antifascist Organizing

It was no Harpers Ferry: August 22d wasn’t an accident, it was a product of our thinking

A Diversity of Tactics is Not Enough; We Need Rules of Engagement

Nov 3, 2021

Where Do We Go Next? A Review of Shane Burley’s Why We Fight

In this review essay, Three Way Fight contributor Devin Zane Shaw examines a wide-ranging set of writings on current fascist movements and antifascist strategy. In the process, Shaw advances a distinctive argument about fascism's class politics, an issue on which Three Way Fight supporters hold a range of perspectives.

Shane Burley, Why We Fight: Essays on Fascism, Resistance, and Surviving the Apocalypse. AK Press, 2021. 353pp.

Reviewed by Devin Zane Shaw

When it was published in 2017, Shane Burley’s Fascism Today: What It Is and How to End It was among a spate of books, coming from the militant antifascist tradition, focused on outlining and combating the contemporary threat of fascism. Though his research began before events surrounding the 2016 US presidential campaign, it was given a new impetus and urgency with the public emergence of the Alt Right as a political force and the election of Donald Trump as president. Burley’s book stands out for melding the concerns of Mark Bray’s Antifa: The Antifascist Handbook (2017) and the in-depth research on the far right that animates Matthew N. Lyons’s Insurgent Supremacists: The U.S. Far Right’s Challenge to State and Empire (2018) (Lyons also wrote the foreword for Fascism Today). I cannot believe I’m about to deliver a retrospective evaluation of a book which is not yet five years old, but Lenin’s apocryphal comment that “there are weeks where decades happen” resonates with many of us these days, thus: Fascism Today remains, like Bray’s and Lyons’s respective contributions, one of the representative texts for understanding the concerns and aims of militant antifascism during that period.

Cover of Why We Fight by Shaney Burley, with photo of protesters in gas masks carrying shields
Burley’s Why We Fight: Essays on Fascism, Resistance, and Surviving the Apocalypse opens with a distinctly different mood, with an introduction that ruminates on millennialist currents within fascist groups, climate apocalypse, and possibilities opened by an antifascist opposition—in a world of cycling if not accelerating capitalist crises—to the ever-present threat of barbarism. It’s a mood that reflects the shifting terrain of militant antifascist struggle on the uncertain ground of the pandemic (having been compiled for publication, it seems, in Spring 2020), and it remains relevant in light of the more recent moment of liberal triumphalism (having electorally “defeated” so-called “Trumpism”) and the theoretical and practical challenges posed by the reorganization of fascist and far-right movements. However, there is a sharp difference in mood between the Introduction and the first two thirds of the book, which has to do with how the book is organized. Why We Fight includes a selection of articles—some substantially revised—from 2017 to 2020 and it also contains several previously unpublished essays, many of which round out the end of the book.

The Fall of the Alt Right

As I read it, Why We Fight is loosely organized into three thematic sections. The first thematic section, from the chapter “Disunite the Right” to “The Fall of the Alt Right Came from Antifascism” (in other words, the first three chapters after the Introduction), covers the trajectory of the Alt Right, which one can glean through the chapter titles themselves. It is a direct sequel to Burley’s analysis in Fascism Today. There, as I mentioned, he covers the rising threat of new fascist movements. Here, he chronicles the collapse of the Alt Right, which positioned itself for a time as the vanguard of the contemporary far right. This sequence demonstrates how pressure applied by militant antifascist organizing led to splits within far-right groups that had formed pragmatic but uneasy coalitions. The substance of Burley’s argument is that the fight against fascism is not won by purely legal mechanisms (he contends that lawsuits can dismantle the financial or material infrastructure of particular far-right groups, but not the broader movement as a whole) or debates in the so-called marketplace of ideas. He concludes:

It is not the vague mysticism of public opinion or the spin from op-eds. What stops white nationalists is activists stopping white nationalists: stopping their project from functioning, from expanding, from making a difference. In this way, the antifascist movement—made up of church groups, student clubs, anarchists, and liberals—has prevented the Alt Right’s infrastructure from self-replicating by throwing a monkey wrench into their machine (59).

In other words, it was militant community-based organizing that outflanked the Alt Right’s organizational efforts.

Each of what I view to be the three loosely thematic sections follow the same sequence: first, Burley sketches the ideological and organizational parameters of far-right activity, balancing how far-right groups elaborate these parameters and how they appear within a critical antifascist perspective, and then he concludes the sequence by examining how antifascists can fight back.

The first thematic section, then, shows how antifascist organizing can splinter far-right coalitions. As Burley notes throughout, fascism seeks to make the implicit hierarchies of social oppression explicit; for example, the United States as a settler-colonial society has a long and ongoing history of heteropatriarchy, antiblack racism, and Indigenous dispossession, and fascist movements seek to re-entrench these social hierarchies to their own social, economic, and political advantage. In the chapter “Disunite the Right,” Burley argues that coalitions between the Alt Right and the Alt Light fractured over just how much of the implicit was to be made explicit. The Alt Right is a white identitarian movement which seeks to transform the United States into an explicitly white ethnostate; “the Alt Right’s principles…all flow downstream from identity” (48). The Alt Light, as the name implies, attempts to present a more palatable version of far-right ideology, which it presents as a kind of right-wing “civic nationalism”: it “tempers its ideas about race yet still utilizes national chauvinism, protectionism, and isolationism” (40). As antifascist pressure mounted against their coalitions, the two groups split. The Alt Right entered coalitions with more explicitly fascist groups and was sidelined by broad antifascist counter-organizing after Charlottesville, while the Alt Light—which, Burley contends, has a much bigger stake in protecting its social media grift, and hence is particularly responsive to pressures of no-platforming or de-platforming—was forced to distance itself from the more explicitly fascist subcultures of the far right. The fall of the Alt Right did not dismantle the danger of fascism and the far right, but it offers a lesson about how to apply pressure to undermine their often tenuous coalitions.

Metapolitics

The second thematic section, from “25 Theses on Fascism” to “How Racists Dream” covers a variety of organizational, cultural, and “metapolitical” aspects of far-right and fascist movements. The chapter “A History of Violence” examines how incidents of supposedly “lone wolf” violence are primed within far-right circles, sometimes implicitly by their rhetoric and behaviour, sometimes explicitly, as in the case of Louis Beam’s influential theory of “leaderless resistance” (laid out in an essay of the same name). Other chapters focus on far-right metapolitics, which attempts to shift the political and intellectual culture of society, pulling it rightwards, to make fascist ideas more palatable and mainstream. “How Racists Dream” covers how publishers have attempted to give fascist ideas an intellectual veneer. The essay “Contested Space” shows how antifascists have attempted to “go where they go” by contesting specific subcultural spaces, including music scenes (many of us remember how punks fought neo-nazis out of that scene decades ago; Burley here covers folk and metal), sports (soccer and gyms), “northern traditions” (heathenry), and self-defense clubs. As Burley notes, “when someone is inside of a subculture, or an organization with subcultural agency in particular, they have more power than they would have individually in the shifting ether of mass politics” (131). It would have been interesting if he had followed up on this observation by assessing whether certain forms of far-right metapolitics have drifted toward subcultures rather than mass organizing because they have been outflanked by antifascists in street-level organizing, since one would presume that the more esoteric their references become, the more they are potentially sidelined within even far-right social ecologies, let alone mass organizing efforts. Nordic symbolism and references to Julius Evola might not carry the overt and widely recognized historical baggage as references to Nazism or Mussolini, but they also aren’t as readily recognizable as the rhetoric and symbols of right-wing “civic nationalism” evinced by patriot movements and the Alt Light.

Self-Help and Supremacism

The third thematic section, from “Introduction to Armageddon” to the end of the book, is unified not so much by a common theme as much as a common scope. There are essays on a wide variety of topics: climate catastrophe, blackface and white identity, a recent history of far-right violence, Rojava and anarchist internationalism, antisemitism, and male supremacist subcultures. There is also a current of autobiographical self-reflection that runs through several essays, but a reconstruction of this aspect is beyond the scope of this review.

Here I will look at the final essay of the book, “Chasing the Black Sun,” which examines male-supremacist fascism. On their face, male supremacist groups which lack an unambiguous racial bar don’t appear to be fascist according to many definitions of the term, though they would still be categorized as far right. Burley argues that Wolves of Vinland and Operation Werewolf (both founded by Paul Waggener) are fascist. The Wolves of Vinland are well-known to researchers of the far right, and Burley notes that within the far-right milieu, their “fascist bonafides are unquestionable” (263). The present discussion will focus on Operation Werewolf (hereafter OPWW). Burley argues that OPWW sanitizes much of the white supremacist ideology which undergirds the Wolves of Vinland, but nonetheless this “self-help business empire” also acts as a Trojan horse for “venerating all of their [white nationalists’] key ideological impulses” (264).

In a way, OPWW is a combination of social-media marketing or branding and far-right movements. Its program is a smattering of self-help, pop psychology, financial advice, spirituality, and physical training. There’s also a grift vibe, as Waggener markets himself as the “brand” or aesthetic of this kind of masculinity. But within that program is a vision of masculine domination and violence against a decadent and effeminate society. Many of its core programmatic components fall squarely within the parameters of fascism that Burley sketches in his “25 Theses on Fascism.” As Burley argues in Thesis 25, fascism makes the implicit hierarchies in society explicit, and male supremacist movements explicitly and consciously embrace the patriarchal hierarchies of (in the case of North America) settler-colonial societies which they perceive to be in crisis: “that men’s role over women is deserved, natural, and based on what is lacking in women” (299). Furthermore, Waggener’s groups stoke the idea that masculinity is based on the assertion of the will, including the assertion of the will through violence. As noted in Thesis 17: “fascism seeks to sanctify violence, built directly into their [sic] conception of identity and a correctly hierarchical society” (66).

In Thesis Six, Burley contends that contemporary fascism “is largely built on metapolitics rather than explicit politics. Fascist projects attempt to influence culture, perspectives, and morality as precursors to politics” (62–63). Waggener presents himself, in a manner to be imitated, in an aggressive, hypermasculine style, but the aestheticization goes beyond his own personal brand, beyond the LARPing for which his groups are sometimes ridiculed, to aesthetic choices that embrace symbolism which has already been appropriated by Nazism and white supremacists. Thus this symbolism, which is esoteric enough to allow for plausible deniability, has already been reinterpreted in a way which venerates white supremacist ideology. The most obvious choice is Waggener’s use of the Nordic Black Sun as a symbol of transformation (hence the title of the essay), but Burley also tracks the use of others. He demonstrates, at several points throughout the book, how both white supremacists and male supremacists have drawn on Julius Evola’s traditionalist reinterpretation of “Kali Yuga” (one phase in the Vedic Cycle of Ages) as a contemporary age of decadence: “the current state of Kali Yuga is blamed for ‘modern, liberated women,’ Type II diabetes, and everything in between—all signs that we have lost our true path and an indicator that becoming an Operation Werewolf Operative can set you free” (271).

In addition, he contends that while the ideology of OPWW tones down the explicit white supremacism of the Wolves of Vinland by offering a vision of male supremacist, supposedly ethno-pluralist nationalism for all peoples (in line with Burley’s tenth thesis), white supremacism returns in the mythology peddled by Waggener. This mythology—including a seemingly eclectic collection of Nordic and Vedic symbols—is itself based on a belief that Europeans and much of Hindu South Asia share common ancestry in “mythic Indo-European peoples,” which has “been part and parcel of white supremacist literature,” and which “places a certain amount of white racial ownership over Hinduism” (269). Though white supremacism is sanitized in OPWW, it returns in its mythology. Here Burley is especially effective in showing that male supremacists’ symbolic choices draw their salience from their associations within the broader far-right milieu.

Before concluding, Burley examines feminist approaches to masculinity, including the work of bell hooks and Nora Samaran, in order to suggest antifascist alternatives to male supremacism. Patriarchal concepts of masculinity are characterized by culturally and historically specific values accorded to supposedly immutable natural or biological characteristics, which function to explain away relations of oppression that suffuse patriarchal societies: hardness and immobility are contrasted with the “weaknesses” of vulnerability, adaptability, and care. These characteristics are an ill-fitting ensemble for some men (Burley, in an autobiographical reflection, gives his father as an example). In the male supremacist worldview, this ill fit is explained away as a symptom of weakness, decadence, and effeminacy; it characterizes masculinity as an open embrace of domination and violence. An antifascist worldview offers a transvaluation of masculinity based on building relationships of reciprocity, care, and adaptability. As Burley writes, “if we see masculinity as a proper construct, a cluster of aspirations and traits, then we can reconstruct it the way we see fit—perhaps even beyond masculinity altogether and toward a different kind of person” (304).

Criticism I: Burley on Marxism

At its best, Burley’s work distils the complicated and sometimes contradictory features of fascist movements while advocating for militant antifascism with rigor, clarity, and succinctness. However, there are numerous problems with Burley’s engagement with revolutionary theory—and more specifically, with Marxist approaches to revolutionary theory—and the class composition of fascism.

Some problems involve oversimplification. His analysis of Marx’s essay “The Jewish Question” is one-sided, lacking the kind of nuance found in one of his secondary sources, Enzo Traverso’s The Jewish Question: History of a Marxist Debate (Haymarket, 2019) (241). At one point, he shoehorns Mao’s revolutionary strategy into a dichotomy between riot and strike, neither of which is an appropriate category for protracted people’s war (181). To be fair, the reference to Mao is made in passing, and the discussion of Marx is a programmatic reading which is part of a broader case showing that orthodox leftist approaches to antisemitism are inadequate to the task (a point with which I generally agree).

The chapter “Introduction to Armageddon” contains a more substantial misrepresentation of Marxist theory in general and Clara Zetkin’s work in particular. Burley argues that in our contemporary situation—marked by climate catastrophe, population displacement, and increased economic precarity in advanced capitalist economies—traditional forms of organizing will fail to bring the necessarily, revolutionary changes that can stave off greater catastrophe. He argues that strikes will fail to bring revolutionary changes because a growing number of the dispossessed lack a direct relation to production, hence, they are part of a growing lumpenproletariat. Burley writes:

As automation, the “gig economy,” and economic decline ravage communities that once relied on unionized factories, public employment, and a reliable safety net for stability, the ranks of the lumpenproletariat enlarge. Historically Marxists loathed the lumpenproletariat. Clara Zetkin suggested the “venal lumpens” were ripe for terrorism, a popular notion in Marxist circles that masses unable to sustain themselves through wage labor were personally bankrupt and strategically useless since they lacked the ability to strike. The unemployed, houseless, nomads, Indigenous communities existing outside the economy, subsistence farmers, bohemians, and a range of conflicting and intersecting identities could be labeled as “lumpen” (181).

There is a kernel of truth here surrounded by exaggeration and misrepresentation. It is true that Marxists historically have had an ambivalent attitude toward the lumpenproletariat, which includes fractions that have played an important role in counter-revolutionary movements. It is also true that, in classical Marxist theory, too many disparate groups are categorized as lumpen and dismissed in overly moralistic terms. But the implication here goes far beyond these criticisms; Burley contends that Marxism has little to offer outside of ‘classical’ industrial organizing.

The reference to Zetkin was a clue that led me to read this passage with more attention. Zetkin’s position here isn’t nearly as well known as Marx’s analyses in The Class Struggles in France: 1848–1850 and the Eighteenth Brumaire or Mao’s analyses of class in China from the 1920s, which are more representative in discussions of the lumpenproletariat. Nor is her work substitute for the discussions of Black liberation movements in the 1960s, which drove a critical reconsideration of the orthodox Marxist position on the lumpenproletariat. So, the reference to her work, in the broader scheme of things, is an outlier.[1]

Burley would presumably know Zetkin through her early essays on fascism, some of the earliest to examine fascism as it emerged. Indeed, the reference to “venal lumpens,” as far as I can tell, is drawn from her essay “The Struggle against Fascism” (1923). Knowing this, I figured that her comment isn’t attacking the unemployed, vagabonds, refugees, and others. In context, she argues that antifascists must carry out ideological and political struggle among a variety of social strata, for

Let us not forget that violent fascist gangs are not composed entirely of ruffians of war, mercenaries by choice, and venal lumpens who take pleasure in acts of terror.[2]

In this passage, I presume her audience would think not only of Italian fascisti, but also the Freikorps (who are also discussed by Burley), right-wing paramilitaries who led the reaction against communist revolutionary struggle in Germany. She isn’t arguing that the whole lumpenproletariat is “ripe for terrorism.” Nor does this passage support the remainder of Burley’s argument that Marxists held that the lumpenproletariat were strategically useless because they could not strike. Instead, her contention is that fascism cannot be reduced to a violent lumpen movement, meaning that antifascist organizing must agitate among the other classes before they find common cause within the far right. Furthermore, while the organizations to which Zetkin belonged, the Communist International and KPD (Kommunistische Partei Deutschlands) failed to stem the tide of Nazism, it wasn’t for want of organizing the unemployed. As Nicos Poulantzas observes, the KPD recruited “among the unemployed in enormous numbers after 1930. In 1932, only about 22 per cent of its members were actually in work.”[3] I am unsure who would be representative of the position Burley criticizes—it’s not the relevant reason for Marx or Mao—though I could see how it might apply to some proponents of syndicalism or social democracy.

Criticism II: Fascism and Class

In general, though, Burley’s mishandling of the concept of the lumpenproletariat is part of a broader lack of clarity about class throughout Why We Fight. As he notes in his second thesis on fascism, one of the conditions that enables fascist movements is the “destructive upheaval of class society” (61). In that same thesis, he argues that fascism does not require “a fixed demographic of finance capital,” which I understand to be a critique and rejection of the orthodox (popular front) Marxist position, presented by Dimitrov in 1935 but also later adapted by the Black Panther Party. The BPP’s line states: “Fascism is the open terroristic dictatorship of the most reactionary, most chauvinistic (racist) and the most imperialist elements of finance capital.’[4] On this point we agree. However, I disagree with Burley’s vague and inconsistent definition of fascism as a working-class movement. We could classify his descriptions into three conceptual clusters.

  • Some characterize fascism as having a working class base: “fascists employ the power of marginalized classes” (63); it recruits from “large segments of the working class” (67); the “white nationalist movement” is “known for its working class and rural base” (159).
  • Others explain working-class collaboration with fascism or white supremacy as a protection of interests or privilege: “white supremacy is the autoimmune disease of the working class” (112); fascism is “a mass movement of working people turned against their own interests in a desperate bid to hold onto privilege” (148); “As crisis becomes the new normal, splits will form in the working class, with privileged groups fighting to maintain their menial comforts” (171).
  • Finally, some passages upend his definition: “The Alt Right is white nationalism for the twenty-first century middle class male, and it then creates crossover spaces with Trump Republicans, civic nationalist types, anti-liberal libertarians, and so on” (78).
There are several problems with defining fascism as a working-class movement. First, broad, supposedly common-sense terms like “the elite,” “middle class,” and “working class” are vague and imprecise, especially in advanced capitalist societies such as the United States and Canada. Indeed, in common usage, these ostensibly class categories are also moral appraisals. Thus, even if it were true that fascism is a working-class movement, it would be necessary to offer a critical approach that challenges the biases of paternalistic liberals who view far-right politics as a backwards and atavistic relic of uneducated working-class and rural whites.

A militant antifascist perspective must adhere to more rigorous class categories to counter these biases, and to counter far-right and antisemitic attempts to commandeer anti-elitist sentiment within broader social movements. In my view, Marxist class categories—once they have been critically examined through prisms such as, but not limited to, race and gender—are far more specific than common-sense notions. The working class is, as Bromma notes, “a family of three separate classes”: the proletariat, the worker elite (or, classically, the “labor aristocracy”) and the lumpenproletariat.[5]

  • The proletariat, which makes up a majority of the working class around the globe, includes workers who fall into Engels’ classical definition of the proletariat—“modern wage labourers who, having no means of production of their own, are reduced to selling their labour-power in order to live”—a description which extends far beyond manufacturing, but it can also include unwaged labor (such as housework) and work that is done outside the formal economy, as well as the unemployed. The proletariat lives at or near the level of bare subsistence.
  • The lumpenproletariat is a small part of the working class that exists outside a direct relationship to legal production and distribution, though who is included in the lumpenproletariat remains subject to controversy. Contra Burley, while there are elements of the unemployed, the houseless, or Indigenous peoples who fall into the lumpenproletariat, each group as a whole is not lumpen: the unemployed are part of the proletariat, as would be working houseless people; Indigenous peoples are colonized nations. More typically, especially in discussions of fascism, the lumpen of concern are white supremacist gangs, ex-soldiers, and professional mercenaries.
  • The worker elite exists between the bourgeoisie and proletariat; it is more accurately part of the “middle class.” Bromma contends that the worker elite cannot be distinguished as skilled versus unskilled labor nor merely by a certain level of income. Instead, holistically speaking, the worker elite receives (a) privileged standard of living (in terms of both income and social benefits), and (b) some degree of access to the political system; (c) it is positioned on the side of power in relation to existing fault lines of social struggle (for example, in the US, typically the worker elite is white when we consider racial fault lines, men when it comes to gender, they have thrown their support behind American imperialism, etc.); and (d) it receives systemic and durable privileges, built into the social fabric.[6]

With these definitions in mind, the class composition of fascism will become clearer (with the caveat that there remains some degree of simplification in this presentation). We must observe, first, that the presence of some elements of a given class does not mean that a particular class drives insurgent far-right movements. That there are lumpen elements in an ideology that venerates violence is beyond controversy. The assumption that in order to ascend to power there must be some degree of collaboration between fascist movements and fractions of the bourgeoisie contributes to our understanding of how fascist movements might exploit factionalism with the bourgeoisie. However, in my view, neither of these factors explain the class character and potential mass base of insurgent far-right and fascist movements.

Revisiting Burley’s analyses, then, our first question is: which remaining section of the working class offers a potential mass base for fascism? According to the definitions I proposed above, his references to the “working class” refer more specifically to the worker elite. As I have already noted, the presence of white proletarians doesn’t mean that fascism is a proletarian movement—it is generally accepted, if we maintain definitions of class along the lines suggested by Bromma and others, that the majority of proletarians in North America are women and/or workers of color, and these groups are the targets of far-right violence and not its social base. Thus, while it is imprecise to categorize fascism as drawing on “marginalized classes,” Burley would be correct to observe that those elements of the workers elite that join far right movements do so to defend their social and class privileges, and this brings them into conflict with other parts of the working classes.

There is one more twist, however. In The Anatomy of Fascism, liberal historian Robert Paxton examines the class composition of fascist movements and concludes that working class participation was proportionally lower than other sections of society, because “those already deeply engaged, from generation to generation, in the rich subculture of socialism, with its clubs, newspapers, unions, and rallies, were simply not available for another loyalty.”[7] Now, the North American worker elite is hardly engaged with a “rich subculture of socialism,” but some sections of this class do have unions. Without downplaying how worker elites and their unions and organizations have historically participated in preserving ‘social peace’ within capitalism—in Burley’s terms, preserving the “implicit” social and economic hierarchies in class society—we could also expect that the participation of worker elites in unions or cultures of solidarity offers a point of resistance against far-right’s explicit desiderata. Nonetheless, we must also acknowledge the potential mass base available through the worker elite who either lack unions or are openly anti-union.

Burley’s most succinct encapsulation of twenty-first century fascism is his identification of the “middle-class” character of its momentary “vanguard” at the time, the Alt Right (78). In my view, it is disaffected elements of both the worker elite and the petty bourgeoisie—two factions of this “middle class”—who are driving contemporary far-right movements; they play a role in ideological leadership and the potential mass base. The leading figures of Alt Right, for example, not only pursued post-secondary education but also adopted metapolitical strategies and arguments from the European New Right. Groups associated with the white identitarian movement sought—and still seek—to recruit members on college campuses and universities. As for the potential mass base, according to Robert A. Pape’s analysis of 377 people arrested for charges related to the January 6th Capitol putsch, 44 percent were either business owners or white-collar workers. (We should be circumspect with this data, however; according to Pape, 87 percent of those arrested were unaffiliated with far-right groups).[8]

In classical Marxist theory, the petty bourgeoisie was bound to disappear into the proletariat. As Marx and Engels argue in The Communist Manifesto, small capitalists or the petty bourgeoisie sink into the proletariat “because their diminutive capital does not suffice for the scale on which Modern Industry is carried.” This “classical” statement has seemingly justified lumping various classes under the rubric of the working class, since, the logic goes, Marx and Engels predicted the disappearance of the petty bourgeoisie more than one hundred and fifty years ago, so by now one must be either bourgeois or proletarian (the one percent or the ninety-nine percent, as one leftist argot has it). By contrast, as Rosa Luxemburg shows, the disappearance of the petty bourgeoisie does not proceed in a linear fashion; the fate of the petty bourgeoisie is subject to contradictions and thus must be handled dialectically. Hence, small capitalists serve a concrete role in capitalist development: “they initiate new methods of production in well-established branches of industry; they are instrumental in the creation of new branches of production not yet exploited by the big capitalist.”[9] The small capitalist exists in the interstices of big capital until their diminutive capital no longer suffices to stay competitive within an increasing scale of production, and this cycle appears as “a periodic mowing down of small enterprises, which rapidly grow up again, only to be mowed down once more by large industry.”[10]

The petty bourgeoisie and the worker elite occupy different places within capitalist modes of production. Like the worker elite, though, the petty bourgeoisie has typically allied with whiteness when confronted with antiracist struggle; it has allied with patriarchy when confronted with women’s struggle. It has invested in American imperialism because American imperialism served its own interests. And the petty bourgeoisie, since it is composed of owners of capital, has received similar if not superior systemic and durable social privileges as the worker elite. Despite these differences, both classes occupy an especially unstable economic position in an economy governed by neoliberal policy and subject to crisis, which endangers their class status. And, despite their differences, these two classes adopt the same ideological maneuvers, presenting themselves as producers, patriots, citizens, or ‘the people,’ at the same time benefiting from class, racial, and gender oppression, and—in settler colonial societies such as ours—ongoing Indigenous dispossession. The far right’s metapolitics, so aptly chronicled by Burley’s analyses, attempts to modulate this ideological language around the explicit embrace of the implicit hierarchies that the middle classes—the white middle classes—have historically fortified.

Conclusion

The purpose of class analysis is to illuminate the potential social bases and class tendencies of far-right movements. I believe it that this type of analysis can help antifascists glean insight into far-right organizational forms and their potential weaknesses. I do not believe that class categories should be mechanically and uncritically applied to these movements, or else we risk falling back into dogmatic positions similar to those advanced by orthodox Marxists or paternalistic liberals. We must not forget that fascist ideology—documented extensively throughout Why We Fight—has an appeal which, while it typically draws white supremacist racial color lines, is able to cut across class divisions, and sometimes its presumed racial and gender lines.

Class analysis also demands that we keep our perspective trained on systemic features of our society, including capitalist class domination. A three-way fight approach must maintain a revolutionary, anticapitalist, egalitarian horizon. The ills of society are not, as liberals have it, merely attributable to bad actors and necessarily imperfect but reformable institutions; nor are they, as the far-right would have it, the product of secret cabals (often expressed in antisemitic conspiracies). We must continue to build a revolutionary, antifascist theory and praxis that stops fascists in the streets, but which also aims to overthrow the conditions which make fascism possible. Shane Burley’s Why We Fight is an important contribution to answering the question: where do we go next?

Notes

1. See also J. Sakai, The “Dangerous Class” and Revolutionary Theory: Thoughts on the Making of the Lumpen/proletariat (Montreal: Kersplebedeb, 2017).

2. Clara Zetkin, Fighting Fascism: How to Struggle and How to Win, edited by John Riddell and Mike Taber (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2017), 60.

3. Nicos Poulantzas, Fascism and Dictatorship: The Third International and the Problem of Fascism, translated by Judith White (London: Verso, 1979), 181.

4. The Black Panther Party, “Call for a United Front against Fascism,” in The U.S. Antifascism Reader, edited by Bill V. Mullen and Christopher Vials (London: Verso, 2020), 269. The Black Panther Party add the parenthesis “(racist)” to Dimitrov’s formulation.

5. Bromma, The Worker Elite: Notes on the “Labor Aristocracy” (Montreal: Kersplebedeb, 2014), 4.

6. Bromma, The Worker Elite, 19–21.

7. Robert O. Paxton, The Anatomy of Fascism (New York: Vintage, 2004), 50.

8. See Robert A. Pape and Chicago Project on Security and Threats, “Understanding American Domestic Terrorism: Mobilization Potential and Risk Factors of a New Threat Trajectory,” Division of the Social Sciences, University of Chicago, April 6, 2021.

9. Rosa Luxemburg, Reform or Revolution? (Paris: Foreign Languages Press, 2020), 17.

10. Luxemburg, Reform of Revolution?, 18.