Aug 20, 2023

Review of "The Rise of Ecofascism" by Sam Moore and Alex Roberts

Sam Moore and Alex Roberts, The Rise of Ecofascism: Climate Change and the Far Right
Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2022
160 pages; paperback $19.95, ISBN 9781509545384; hardback $59.95, ISBN 9781509545377

Review by Matthew N. Lyons

Book cover of The Rise of Ecofascism, with photo of forest fire in background
How are far rightists responding to the global climate crisis? Denial of climate change has long been an ingrained reflex among rightists far beyond the reach of fossil fuel industry propaganda. This is starting to shift as devastating heat waves, draughts, fires, and floods make the reality of global warming increasingly obvious–not as an impending danger but as a catastrophe that’s already well underway. Increasingly, sections of the right in North America and Europe are embracing environmental concerns but using them to bolster racism and exclusionary nationalism, tapping into traditions going back to the Nazis’ blood and soil ideology in Germany and the early conservation movement’s settler-colonialist underpinnings in the U.S. The racist mass murderers in Christchurch and El Paso four years ago both invoked environmental rationales, with the Christchurch shooter declaring himself an “eco-fascist.” Racist environmentalism may or may not clash with climate change denial, and some right-wingers, notably Tucker Carlson, have promoted both. One way or another, how far rightists address environmental issues is only going to become more important in the coming years, but what positions they will take and what impact it will have is not obvious.

An excellent entrée to this topic is The Rise of Ecofascism: Climate Change and the Far Right, by Sam Moore and Alex Roberts. This is one of the best books on far right politics that I’ve read in years. It offers an insightful overview of far right positions, past and present, on climate and environmental issues, and traces how conceptions of nature inform and underpin far right politics overall. Looking toward the future, The Rise of Ecofascism outlines several grim but believable scenarios for how far right environmental politics—and its relationship with capitalist interests—is likely to develop. The book honors the complexity of its subject without overwhelming the reader, and offers brief but helpful comments on the implications of the climate crisis for antifascist strategy. 

The Rise of Ecofascism offers an insightful overview of far right positions on climate and environmental issues, traces how conceptions of nature inform and underpin far right politics overall, and outlines several scenarios for how far right environmental politics—and its relationship with capitalist interests—is likely to develop.”

Moore and Roberts are well positioned to contribute to this discussion. From 2019 to 2022 the two of them hosted the UK-based radical antifascist podcast titled 12 Rules for What (a play on Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life), several of whose episodes have focused on environmental politics. Sam Moore left the podcast in 2022; since then, Alex Roberts has continued it solo. The Rise of Ecofascism is the second book they have co-authored. In 2021 Moore and Roberts published Post-Internet Far Right: Fascism in the Age of the Internet, which explores how the far right has changed in the era of online politics and culture.

Post-Internet Far Right set the stage for The Rise of Ecofascism in a number of ways. Both books demonstrate a wide-ranging familiarity with fascist and quasi-fascist politics, and both are written in a style that is intricate but clear and engaging. Both books also treat their subjects as arrays of multiple currents that interact dynamically and in complex ways. The following passage from Post-Internet Far Right encapsulates this approach and also highlights the thematic relationship between the two books:

“The types of far-right thought and action developing in the wake of the internet are much more varied and complex than these labels [“Nazi” and “fascist”] seem to indicate, and the type of thought and action that will predominate in the long-run has yet to be settled. The far right is in a state of productive diversification. It has yet to cohere around a new stable formulation; however, it almost certainly will, and we must be ready for it.”
*          *          *
“The various political forms [the far right] takes … are in tension with one another. Particularly, there is a tension between movement-building and deadly violence, or fascism in its ‘identitarian’ form and ‘blackpilled neo-Nazism. But this tension is not eternal. And the conditions under which these two halves might come back together and now also emerging, in the form of an ‘ecofascist’ politics that utilises global climate breakdown to justify murder. This ecofascism is not a homogenous movement, nor can it be, for it contains contradictory ideas of its own. Particularly, it will struggle to articulate the contradictions between ecology, ethnonationalism, and economic imperatives, like its historical forebears did. These contradictions are handles that anti-fascists can grasp to destroy it, but the scale and tactics of anti-fascism must be rethought…” (10-11).

In other ways, however, Moore and Roberts’s two books are quite different. Post-Internet Far Right was published by Dog Section Press, a small “anti-profit” anarchist publisher, while The Rise of Ecofascism was put out by Polity, an established academic press whose books are distributed by Wiley. Much of Post-Internet Far Right reads like an extended thought piece, with thought-provoking and often original analysis but little supporting documentation, while The Rise of Ecofascism delves into more specifics and cites a wide-ranging set of primary and secondary sources. Post-Internet Far Right focuses on explicating the far right’s dynamics, such as the radicalization process, use of memes, evolving organizational forms, and the complex relationships between leaders (or “influencers”) and the rank and file and between online politics and street activism. The Rise of Ecofascism, by contrast, focuses less on movement dynamics and more on the content and implications of far right ideas.

Despite its title, The Rise of Ecofascism isn’t just about a distinctive “ecofascist” movement or ideology but rather a broader range of racist and authoritarian environmental currents. Here and elsewhere, the book carries forward Post-Internet Far Right’s emphasis on multiplicity. After surveying an “episodic and disparate” history of far right environmentalisms, Moore and Roberts tell us that “the far right has diversified its nature politics once again, splintering into parts more or less accepting of the problem, more or less mystified, more or less ambivalent about the possible end of industrial modernity” (4). For example, some within the far right deny climate change altogether, some pay lip service to its reality but oppose constructive measures to address it, and some recognize the enormity of the climate crisis but want to solve it through authoritarian, supremacist, or genocidal means. Moore and Roberts trace these and other divergences across several sectors of the far right: governmental figures such as Donald Trump or Jair Balsonaro; political parties such as France’s National Rally or India’s Bharatiya Janata Party; non-electoral movements such as Italy’s Casa Pound, Identitarianism, and various offshoots of the alt-right; and individuals and groups that plan for or carry out acts of mass killing.

As in their first book, Moore and Roberts show a keen eye for complex dynamics. For example, while some on the left have simplistically presented neoliberalism and the far right as harmonious partners or branches of the same project, Moore and Roberts emphasize the contradictions involved:

“The dominant currents of contemporary far-right ecologism…work in a complex relationship to neoliberalism. They object to neoliberalism’s tendency towards international cultural homogenization, understood as social liberalization and the redress of structural disparities, as well as the homogenization of ‘nature.’ However, in response, they propose little else than the further radicalization of neoliberalization’s underlying drive toward privatization, this time lodged firmly at the scale of the national. We might suggest, given the seeming irreversibility of capitalism’s internationalization, that this is impossible. It is in facing this impossibility that the tendency towards violence might scale up” (51-52).

In The Rise of Ecofascism, the theme of multiplicity doesn’t only apply to the political realm but also the environmental one: just as the far right encompasses many distinct political threats beyond fascism, climate systems breakdown goes far beyond global warming to encompass a host of ecological problems, each interwoven with an array of societal causes and effects. The COVID-19 pandemic, which exploded just as Moore and Roberts started writing this book, is a prime example of an eco-crisis that can’t be reduced to global warming, and it shows some of the multi-sided ways that climate crisis plays out for human beings:

“Long imagined in disaster-movie style as a series of blazing hot summers and polar bears adrift, all punctuated by the occasional cataclysmic wave, it suddenly seemed to us that climate systems breakdown might actually look much more like the pandemic did: mass death events, sudden stresses on global supply chains, abrupt and previously unthinkable changes to everyday life, massive discrepancies in vulnerability across class and racial groups, a generally increased anxiety, racially displaced blame, the tightening of surveillance regimes… unprecedented measures that suddenly seem entirely necessary, the sudden collapse of livelihoods for billions of the world’s poor, and a deep economic shock worldwide” (2-3).

Being broader than the pandemic, Moore and Roberts note, “climate change [also] contains other kinds of crises: extreme weather events, migration crises, chronic and acute food and water shortages, climate-related conflicts and the like” (3).

The Rise of Ecofascism’s core argument, presented on Page 1, is that “the escalating climate crisis [will] provide opportunities to all parts of the far right.” This thesis is essentially predictive, and the book’s last chapter explores how environmental politics is likely to affect the far right’s future development and potential rise to power. In the coming years, Moore and Roberts argue, large numbers of mainstream rightists, particularly in the United States, will be forced to confront the fact that their leaders have lied to them about climate change, but rather than turning them into leftists, this realization is likely to drive many of them toward the far right through a combination of two reactions: “a revolt against those who have got us into this mess and simultaneously an attempt to hold on to what some people already have, either as individuals or, more worryingly, as racial groups” (5-6). Here Moore and Roberts are describing a double-edged anger which, I’ve argued elsewhere, is a key element fueling far right politics in general: people’s fear that their relative privilege or power is being challenged by oppressed groups below, coupled with a sense of being beaten down by political, economic, or cultural elites above.

In the context of multi-sided climate-fed crisis, Moore and Roberts envision the rise of large-scale nativist movements encompassing “a whole complicated mess of groups: conspiracists, authoritarians, denialists, nostalgists, China-hawks and admirers, cultural reactionaries and racists, anti-migrant activists and so on” (103). These movement could seek power in various ways, which the authors simplify down to three possible “projects” or “futures”:

  • “Fossilized Reaction” – the nativist movement aligns with the fossil fuel wing of capital around a program of intensified climate denial and intensified militarization of society.
  • “Batteries, Bombs and Borders” – the movement aligns with a broader array of capitalist interests that want to mitigate climate change by developing green energy technologies; to control the necessary resources (such as rare earth minerals) they pursue a new Cold War against China, boost authoritarianism at home, and deepen global inequities.
  • “Climate Collapse Cults” – sizeable fractions of the nativist movement embrace a “logic of killing” that is currently espoused only by small fringe groups, and try to use mass murder to either end modern society or create enclaves cut off from it.

These scenarios will all have devastating consequences, but in different ways and with different implications for antifascist practice. The “Batteries, Bombs and Borders” scenario is particularly tricky, as it could attract large-scale support from liberal environmentalists.

Moore and Roberts discuss antifascist strategy in the book’s Conclusion. Echoing some of the arguments in their previous book, they urge antifascists to embrace tactical and strategic heterogeneity and to identify and exploit tensions and contradictions within the far right, for example “between the rural and the urban, statecraft and mass shootings, nihilism and spirituality, the needs of capital and the projected needs of the Volk” (129). Additionally, in a context where “all politics will, in one way or another, be climate politics” (128), antifascists and environmentalists need to learn from each other and embrace each others’ principles. But since environmentalism itself is a politically contested space, we need to “oppose ecologies of domination with ecologies of liberation” (136). That involves “resist[ing] those ideas of nature that are hierarchical, parochial, tied to a certain race or divided into essentially killable and unkillable parts” (130), but it also means challenging ideas of a common humanity that blame all humans equally for climate crisis or reduce solutions to individual responsibility, thereby masking systems of power. 

“Since environmentalism itself is a politically contested space, we need to ‘resist those ideas of nature that are hierarchical, parochial, [or] tied to a certain race,’ but also challenge ideas that blame all humans equally for climate crisis or reduce solutions to individual responsibility, thereby masking systems of power.”

Given the authors’ solidly radical, anticapitalist perspective, it’s striking that they argue, echoing Christian Parenti, that “a resolution to the climate crisis must be built through the institutions that currently exist, because no others are possible to construct in sufficient time” (135). It’s hard for me to fault the logic here, but I would suggest a crucial caveat: any hope that existing institutions will craft a sustainable climate strategy depends on militant, independently organized popular pressure forcing them to do so.

My criticisms of this book are few. First, there is no index or bibliography, which makes the book harder to use because of the many political players discussed and works cited. Second, building much of the argument around political predictions, as Moore and Roberts do, risks making the book dated quickly, as events so often take unexpected turns. Maybe the point is to focus not so much on the specifics of the scenarios offered as on the insights that inform them: far right environmental politics (and capitalist responses to the climate crisis) could develop in a number of different ways, so we need to pay attention to multiple political currents, complex dynamics, and the dangers of trying to mitigate the crisis within the existing geopolitical framework.

A different kind of limitation is that the authors only address rightist currents whose politics centers on some form of racism or ethno-nationalism. This is customary in discussions of the far right but leaves out important religious-based movements, notably the Christian right, whose supremacist politics arguably centers on gender and sexuality rather than race. The Christian right is weak in Britain, but in the United States it’s huge, and major sections of it advocate a social and political transformation more sweeping than what many ethno-nationalist far rightists call for. Extending Moore and Roberts’s approach to look at how the Christian right relates to climate/environmental politics would be crucial for developing a comprehensive analysis and strategy.

Despite these issues, The Rise of Ecofascism is an outstanding contribution to discussions of both the contemporary far right and climate politics. It’s also testimony that some of the most thoughtful and nuanced analysis of fascism and related currents comes not from academia but from our movements.

Jul 9, 2023

Hindu nationalism in the United States: Challenging racial subordination from the far right?

A growing U.S. network of Modi supporters mixes Hindu supremacism with MAGA politics. The result could stretch the boundaries of who is white.

by Matthew N. Lyons

Even mainstream media noted the disconnect when Joe Biden lavishly welcomed Narendra Modi to Washington after claiming the defense of democracy was a cornerstone of his presidency. The prime minister of India heads an authoritarian (and arguably fascist) political party firmly rooted in Islamophobia and mass murder. Amnesty International called out Modi’s government for overseeing a “rapid deterioration of human rights protections...including increasing violence against religious minorities, shrinking civil society space, and the criminalization of dissent.” So when Biden celebrated the U.S.-India relationship as “more dynamic than at any time in history” and his administration announced multibillion-dollar deals to build semiconductors and high-tech weaponry in India, it was a lot more about geopolitics and fear of China than anything to do with democracy. 

But Modi’s Hindu nationalist movement doesn’t just run India; it’s also a growing force in the United States, and in the years ahead its U.S. branch could help reshape not just the political landscape but even the U.S. racial order. Indian Americans are one of the fastest growing ethnic groups in the United States, increasingly visible politically, whose members include Vice President Kamala Harris and two of the current Republican presidential contenders (Vivek Ramaswamy and Nikki Haley). Within the Indian American community, Hindu nationalism’s bid for dominance is sharply contested by liberal and radical South Asians.

Modi and Trump holding hands and waving to crowd at stadium
Prime Minister Modi and President Trump at "Howdy Modi" rally in Houston, 22 September 2019

There are a lot of good critiques and exposes of the Hindu nationalist movement both in India and beyond. A recent discussion that I find particularly helpful is Maia Ramnath’s essay “The Other Aryan Supremacy: Fighting Hindu Fascism in the South Asian Diaspora,” in the 2022 collection ¡No Pasaran! Antifascist Dispatches from a World in Crisis, edited by Shane Burley. Ramnath’s analysis stands out to me for several reasons: (1) she provides a good overview of Hindu nationalist politics and ideology, with an emphasis on the movement’s organizing in the United States; (2) she highlights the need for antifascists of all backgrounds to become familiar with Hindu nationalism, and for non-South Asians to join in solidarity with the many South Asian organizations that are actively combating this supremacist movement; and (3) she offers insights beyond anything I’ve seen elsewhere into the complicated relationship between Hindu nationalism and U.S. racial politics. In this essay I will use “The Other Aryan Supremacy” as a particular reference point, together with a February 2023 interview with the author on Final Straw Radio, “Maia Ramnath on Resisting Hindutva.” (All page number references below are to “The Other Aryan Supremacy.”)

Overview of Hindutva

Hindu nationalism is a right-wing authoritarian movement that seeks to impose Hindu political and cultural dominance on India. Hindu nationalists have perpetrated some of the most horrific political violence of recent decades, including lynchings, torture, gang rape, and mass killings of Muslims, as well as periodic violence and persecution against Dalits and Christians. Hindu nationalism’s predominant form, also known as Hindutva (“Hinduness”), centers on the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (National Volunteer Organization, or RSS), an all-male cadre organization that promotes a paramilitary ethos and sets the ideological direction for the movement as a whole. Surrounding the RSS is an extensive network known as the Sangh Parivar (Sangh family), which includes dozens of organizations with tens of millions of active members. There are organizations for workers, students, farmers, women, youth, and business professionals, as well as groups focused on education, religion, media, social services, and so on. Over the past seventy years, Hindu nationalism has moved from marginality to become the dominant political force in India and, arguably, the largest right-wing movement in the world.

“Hindu nationalists have perpetrated some of the most horrific political violence of recent decades, including lynchings, torture, gang rape, and mass killings of Muslims as well as periodic violence and persecution against Dalits and Christians.”

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the Sangh Parivar’s political wing, has headed India’s national government since 2014 and received 229 million votes (37%) in the most recent (2019) parliamentary elections. Prime Minister Modi has been an active RSS member throughout his adult life. Modi was chief minister of the Gujarat state government from 2001 to 2014 and is widely considered to be complicit in the 2002 Gujarat pogrom, when Hindu nationalist gangs armed, “in some cases, with printouts from government computer databases listing the names and addresses of Muslims and Muslim-owned businesses…embarked on a rampage of looting, arson, rape, torture, and murder that left thousands dead and many more thousands homeless.” In response several countries, including the United States, instituted travel bans against Modi. (The U.S. rescinded its ban in 2014 when Modi became prime minister.) Since the BJP-led national government took power, both vigilantes and police have intensified anti-Muslim violence and persecution. The government has also passed a new citizenship law that discriminates against Muslims, stripped the Muslim-majority Kashmir region of its formal autonomy, and increased colonialist repression of Kashmiris.

Hindutva is at least closely related to fascism, although the exact relationship is a matter of definitions. As many critics have emphasized, the early Sangh Parivar drew both inspiration and ideas from European fascism, and many Hindu nationalists today still admire Nazism. Although cautioning that many Indians consider it “intellectual colonialism” to apply a Western political label to this distinctly South Asian ideology and movement, Ramnath argues that recognizing Hindutva as a form of fascism helps illuminate “international connections, convergences, and parallels” (255-256).

To help clarify both the extent and limits of those parallels, I’ll compare Hindu nationalism with four defining elements of fascist politics that I proposed in a talk about the U.S. far right a few years ago. First, like fascism, Hindu nationalism involves a totalizing effort to transform society, in that it seeks to reshape all societal spheres along authoritarian corporatist lines. This transformation is based on a myth of “palingenetic ultranationalism” (which historian Roger Griffin considers fascism’s core feature)—the idea that the nation’s organic, transcendent unity is under deadly attack and must be reborn by purging alien threats—in particular, Muslim “invaders.” Second, Hindu nationalists have set out to achieve their goals through an independent, organized mass mobilization—not just controlling people, but energizing and activating them through an extensive, autonomous network that includes a large paramilitary wing. Third, Hindutva shares fascism’s contradictory relationship with the established order: on the one hand, it promotes intensified oppression and violence based on religion, caste, gender, and class and speaks to those (notably upper-caste Hindus) who feel threatened by oppressed groups rising up, but it also uses populist appeals to the resentments of those who feel excluded or beaten down by political, cultural, or economic elites.

Yet Hindu nationalism differs from fascism’s fourth defining element that I proposed for a U.S. context: rejection of the existing liberal democratic political system. The Hindu nationalists of India’s BJP have not done this, at least not overtly. In this respect, the BJP can be compared with the “post-fascist” Brothers of Italy party of Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni. As a related point, current-day U.S. fascists are consistently at odds with the capitalist ruling class, whether or not they want to call capitalism as a system into question, but India’s Sangh Parivar has forged a cordial working relationship with economic elites both domestically and internationally. Rather than treat these differences as definitive, I see them as highlighting fascism’s varied nature and capacity to adapt to different circumstances in different ways.

India’s Hindutva-led governments have pursued close ties with U.S. administrations both Republican and Democratic. Donald Trump of course admired Prime Minister Modi’s Islamophobia and authoritarian leadership, but it was Barack Obama who ended the Bush administration’s visa ban on Modi by inviting him to visit the White House and who, in one commentator’s words, “chose to rehabilitate [Modi’s] image on the world stage.” Following this shift, the Obama administration designated India as a “Major Defense Partner,” giving the nuclear-armed state exceptional access to U.S. military technologies. These overtures reportedly reflected both Obama's interest in using India as a strategic lever against China and his hopes to expand opportunities in India for U.S. businesses.

Hindu nationalists have also developed a strong relationship with the State of Israel and with right-wing Zionism, fueled partly by a shared hatred of “radical Islam” and partly by Hindu nationalists’ admiration for the Zionist project. Israeli settler colonialism over Palestinians has provided lessons for BJP policy in Kashmir, and Zionism’s false claim that criticism of Israel equals antisemitism has offered a blueprint for the false claim that criticism of Hindutva equals “Hinduphobia.” 

Group of men in matching brown pants and white shirts, carrying sticks and red flags, marching in the street
Members of the RSS, Hindu nationalist cadre organization, marching in Bhopal, 23 October 2016

Hindutva organizing in the United States

Hindutva is not only the dominant political force in India, but has also built extensive, powerful networks within the global Indian diaspora, including the large ethnic Indian communities in the United States, Britain, Canada, and elsewhere. The RSS’s U.S. counterpart, the Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh (HSS), has 222 chapters in 32 states, according to a 2022 report by South Asia Citizens Web, which details a wide range of activities by Sangh-affiliated organizations in the United States—a network that Vijay Prashad has dubbed “Yankee Hindutva.” For example, the Hindu American Political Action Committee funds electoral candidates; groups such as the Hindu American Foundation and the Uberoi Foundation undertake efforts to influence public schooling and university education; while the India Relief and Development Fund, Sewa International, and other ostensibly charitable organizations funnel millions of dollars toward Hindu nationalist projects in India. Many of these groups conceal their political beliefs and affiliations. In addition, Hindu nationalists in the U.S. often use public smear campaigns and lawsuits to pressure and intimidate opponents.

Many of these activities center on efforts to shape public discourse around India, Indians, and Hinduism. Maia Ramnath comments that Hindu nationalists intervening in the U.S. educational system are “not just advocating for India’s inclusion in the curriculum; they’re trying to take control of how India is represented in the West, claiming sole authority for a brahminist, Aryan supremacist narrative—as if those representations and narratives were not heavily contested within India and South Asian diasporic communities” (247). Hindu nationalist groups such as the Hindu American Foundation have also been at the forefront of opposition to initiatives banning caste discrimination, including a Seattle ordinance passed in February 2023 and a bill currently before the California state legislature.

“Many Hindu nationalist groups in the U.S. conceal their political beliefs and affiliations. In addition, these groups often use public smear campaigns and lawsuits to pressure and intimidate opponents.”

Hindu nationalists have taken a growing interest in U.S. electoral politics. In recent years, Hindutva’s leading congressional ally was Tulsi Gabbard, who served in the House of Representatives from 2013 to 2021 as its first Hindu (but not Indian American) member, and who ran briefly in the 2020 Democratic presidential primaries. Although she backed Bernie Sanders for president in 2016, Gabbard is no leftist, and her hostility to “radical Islam” and affinity for dictators like Hafez al-Assad have won praise from alt-rightists and MAGA commentators such as Tucker Carlson. But Ramnath notes that Gabbard is exceptional in that Hindu nationalists usually support Republicans (233). Chicago-based industrialist and avid Modi supporter Shalabh Kumar was a leading contributor to Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign. Kumar also founded the Republican Hindu Coalition, which later offered to raise $25 billion to fund Trump’s U.S.-Mexico border wall. An article by Anu Mandavilli and Raja Swamy highlights the contradictions underlying the RHC’s approach:

“In February 2018, the RHC organised a rally in Washington DC in support of Trump’s immigration policies.... Invoking Trump’s promise of a ‘merit-based’ immigration system, participants in the rally asked for quicker processing of green cards for the ‘skilled’ and the ‘best and brightest’ applicants (evidently referring to applicants such as themselves).... [The RHC’s] rhetoric derives from a model minority discourse that claims that hard-working immigrants and good capitalist subjects such as themselves ought to be exempted from anti-immigrant policies on account of ‘merit.’ Tellingly, this posture is also wholly consistent with the politics of class- and caste-privileged Indian immigrants who oppose affirmative action/reservations on the grounds of merit in India.”

Mandavilli and Swamy add that, despite the RHC’s hopes, the Trump administration made it harder even for privileged, “skilled” immigrants to get visas. They note that “the RHC is unable to acknowledge, let alone address Trump’s repeated and openly expressed racist contempt for immigrants and minorities, the broader legitimisation of white supremacist ideology, or the long history of racist violence against immigrants in the US.”

White nationalism and Hindutva

Despite their ideological affinities with Nazism, as far as I can tell Hindu nationalists in the U.S. have focused their political attentions on the MAGA movement and the Republican Party, not any formations to the right of the GOP. For their part, white nationalists have devoted little attention to Hindutva, but when they do comment on it, it’s usually with respect and admiration. Donald Thoresen wrote in 2015 on the alt-right website Counter-Currents that white nationalists could

“take some small comfort in the knowledge that we are not alone in our fight against Leftist cultural hegemony and that there are groups of people on the other side of the world who are actually making some very real progress in this long, uphill battle. ...the specific concerns of Hindu nationalists are not our concerns, but they are sufficiently analogous to warrant study.”

In 2020, Kevin DeAnna (“James Kirkpatrick”) wrote on Vdare:

“Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government is implementing common-sense citizenship laws to protect India’s national identity. Much like China, India is consolidating itself as an empire with a solid ethno-religious core. Its laws provide a model for how a nationalist American government could undo at least some of the damage from decades of out-of-control immigration.”

DeAnna’s article expressed the disappointment felt by many alt-rightists with Trump’s opportunism and failure to implement even harsher immigration policies: “Unfortunately, rather than taking inspiration from PM Modi’s laws, President Trump and his advisers apparently just see an opportunity to win the Indian-American vote.”

If white nationalists draw inspiration from Hindu nationalists, the reverse is also true. The alt-right’s effective use of online harassment and intimidation against political enemies (most notably during the 2016 presidential campaign) may have helped embolden Hindu nationalist campaigns in recent years against North American scholars studying Hinduism and South Asian history, which have included disinformation, smears and personal attacks, threats of death and sexual violence, and stalking.

Going much further, within India itself the Western alt-right has inspired a whole subculture along Hindutva’s rightward edge. Calling themselves “trads” (short for traditionalists), an informal online network of young people has coalesced around the use of ironic memes, violent supremacism and misogyny, and terms and symbols adapted from the alt-right.

“Trad ‘humour’ is deliberately provocative, and designed to ‘trigger’ marginalised communities with shockingly violent ‘humour.’ They include memes depicting the beheading of Muslims, caricatures of Muslims being mowed under their cars, Dalit ‘cockroaches’ being gassed, Muslims being murdered inside concentration camps, or rape victims (Muslims/ Dalits) being urinated upon by a saffronised Pepe the Frog.”

Trad posts often depict sexual violence against Muslim women, and in both 2021 and 2022, trads organized mock online auctions in which scores of prominent Muslim women were offered for sale. But Hindu women who don’t submit to male authority are often targeted as well, with trads declaring that girls should be married young and not educated, and that feminists should be killed. All this is comparable to alt-right online misogyny in the United States, but in India the threats arguably carry additional weight, because organized Hindu nationalist gangs really have carried out gruesome sexual violence against many women within the past quarter century.

Much as alt-rightists took aim at the “cuckservatives” of the Republican establishment, India’s trads express scathing contempt for the BJP, RSS, and other mainstream Hindu nationalists, who they call “raitas,” for being too moderate in their pursuit of Hindu supremacy. As Hindutva grows and becomes more established in the United States, it may be a matter of time before some of its supporters start emulating India’s version of the alt-right, further fueling the movement’s violent, supremacist, and misogynist tendencies.

Hindutva and the U.S. racial order

In recent decades, the U.S. right has broadened its racial base through significant multi-ethnic organizing, as seen in relatively small groups such as the Proud Boys as well as enormous ones such as the New Apostolic Reformation movement. The growth of Yankee Hindutva contributes to this trend but also pushes past it into new territory. Formations such as the Proud Boys and NAR have brought people of color into predominantly white, predominantly Eurocentric contexts. But U.S. Hindu nationalism is not only rooted in a community of color and an Asia-based ideology; it also represents a branch of an organized network that is older, larger, and more successful than almost anything else on the U.S. right. It’s unlikely that this rising force will be content to be junior partners in a movement dedicated to “Western chauvinism” or the equivalent.

“Yankee Hindutva involves an implicit bid not just for model minority status, but for membership in the United States’ racially privileged group.”

Hindutva’s engagement with race in the United States isn’t just a question of how it relates to specific racist policies or political movements, but also how it relates to the structures and dynamics of U.S. racial oppression as an overall system. That engagement involves an encounter between two complex realities: (1) conflict and hierarchy within India and the Indian diaspora along lines of religion, caste, class, and political beliefs; and (2) the ambiguous, contested role of South Asians relative to the United States’ white-black binary.

On one side, Hindu nationalism identifies Hindus not just as practitioners of a religion but as a superior ethnic group, who collectively are entitled to cultural and political dominance over others, especially Muslims. Reinforcing this ideology, as Ramnath notes,

“Hindutva has its base of overseas support in the most affluent segment of the South Asian diaspora—those most likely to align themselves politically with the elite, which in the US means claiming adjacency to white status, unlike those less-advantaged members of the diaspora who are more likely to align themselves in solidarity with other racialized immigrant and minority groups” (231).

On the other side, in the United States Hindutva encounters a system that defines people of Indian descent, whether Hindu or not, as a racially subordinate group subjected to racist discrimination and violence, but also as a “model minority”—i.e., as a group supposedly more capable and successful than other communities of color. In Sarang Narasimhaiah’s words, “the American state has constructed Asian Americans, including South Asians, as a model minority precisely to pit them against other racially marginalized populations, above all else Black people.” Hindu nationalism intensifies this dynamic, as Narasimhaiah notes:

“By encouraging its followers to consolidate their political, economic, and cultural supremacy by any means necessary…Hindutva multiplies the unjust spoils promised by model minority discourse to diasporic South Asians. In doing so, it deepens South Asian American complicity in Black oppression and racialized class warfare against other oppressed peoples in the USA.”

Ramnath takes this a step further, arguing that Yankee Hindutva involves an implicit bid not just for model minority status, but for membership in the United States’ racially privileged group, or as she puts it, “adjacency to white status.” Here Ramnath points to the historical reality that the model minority construct isn’t fixed —in the same way that the whole made up, biologically arbitrary system of race categories isn’t fixed. Like many other immigrant groups in the United States, South Asians’ racial status has been a subject of uncertainty, conflict, and change.

U.S. legal history reflects this. In 1790, naturalized U.S. citizenship was limited to “free white persons”; in 1870, during Reconstruction, it was extended also to people of African descent. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, federal courts heard a series of cases adjudicating the racial status of other ethnic groups. In 1920, Indian immigrant Bhagat Singh Thind petitioned for citizenship, arguing that (a) Indians were classified as “Caucasians” under standard anthropological nomenclature, (b) “Caucasians” were by definition “white,” and (c) as an Indian he was therefore white. Although four lower courts had previously ruled that Indians were white, and although the U.S. racial order was supposedly based on objective, scientific reality, the Supreme Court ruled in 1923 against Thind, declaring that the definition of whiteness was not a matter of science but of “common understanding, by unscientific men.” As a result of this ruling, the federal government stripped many Indian Americans of their citizenship. (Ramnath cites the Thind case in “The Other Aryan Supremacy,” page 235, but I’m relying here on the fuller account in White By Law: The Legal Construction of Race by Ian F. Haney López, Chapter 4.)

But the U.S. racial order has never been static, and there’s no reason to think that South Asians’ non-white status is immutable. In 1923, many southern and eastern Europeans were widely considered racially inferior and subjected to systematic discrimination and exclusion, but that changed within a few decades, as these groups were integrated into the white racial category. Something similar could happen in the 21st century to a number of Asian and Latinx groups, and Hindutva makes “Hindu Americans” prime candidates for such a shift. Hindu nationalism, Ramnath argues, bolsters elitist attitudes that drive wedges “not only between South Asians and other Black and brown minority groups, but within the South Asian diaspora—between those most likely identified as Indian, Hindu, savarna, middle class, white collar, educated, affluent, and those who are most likely lower caste, working class, minority, Muslim, or Dalit.” This elitism embodies a grievance against the U.S. racial order, but it’s a “resentment at being misclassified as nonelite,” not an objection to racist categories themselves (232).

Ramnath continues,

“New immigrant groups can try to gain admittance into the charmed circle of whiteness but, to do that, they have to prove their eligibility through certain benchmarks of economic success, educational attainment, and cultural assimilation: one of the ways to demonstrate assimilation is to perform the requisite racism against designated groups and embrace the structures of white supremacy” ( 232).

Ramnath elaborates this point further in her Final Straw interview:

“Two of the things today that you need to do to get admission into the dominant group, into the in-group, you have to perform anti-Blackness, and you have to perform Islamophobia…. For Indian immigrants who subscribe to Hindutva…and who want to be considered superior, not inferior,…it’s really easy for them to mesh into U.S. right-wing movements and US racial politics. They are already very Islamophobic, so that’s not even a stretch for them…. Anti-Blackness fits in very well with their attitude to caste. It’s very compatible with the ways they think in terms of the caste structure inside India.”

The idea of fascists (or their close cousins) pushing to make the U.S. racial elite more inclusive might seem self-contradictory, but there’s a historical precedent. In the 1930s U.S., many non-Protestant Christians faced systematic discrimination, racist immigration laws barred most southern and eastern Europeans, and the Ku Klux Klan hated Catholics almost as much as it hated Black people. Yet the largest and most dynamic branch of the fascist movement, led by Roman Catholic priest Charles Coughlin, rejected Protestant supremacy and welcomed white Christians of all denominations (while vilifying Jews). Coughlin actually started doing radio broadcasts, which became his chief propaganda vehicle, in defiance of a Klan cross-burning on his lawn. Like the elitism Ramnath describes among relatively privileged South Asians, Coughlin’s movement expressed, not an objection to racism itself, but a “resentment at being misclassified as nonelite.” (Chip Berlet and I discuss Coughlin’s movement and its context in our 2000 book Right-Wing Populism in America, Chapter 7.)

To be clear, Hindu nationalists aren’t openly calling for greater racial privilege. Like most of their MAGA allies, Hindu nationalists in the U.S. disavow explicit racism, and race categories no longer carry the same legal imprimatur as they did when Bhagat Singh Thind petitioned the government to be recognized as white. In any case, it’s too early to say whether some fraction of Indian Americans will see their racial status rise, but several factors make the possibility easier to envision, including Hindu nationalism’s growing organization and influence, the Indian American community’s dramatic growth and relatively high overall economic status, and the fact that white people as currently defined are projected to become a minority of the U.S. population within a couple of decades. If this racial shift does happen, it also remains to be seen to what extent European American rightists will accept it and to what extent it will fuel tensions and conflicts with racial traditionalists and hardliners.

Challenges for antifascists

The rise of Hindu nationalism in the United States poses several challenges for radical antifascists. For non-South Asians such as myself, there’s a need to act in solidarity with the South Asians who have born the brunt of exposing and combating Hindutva, and who, as Sarang Narasimhaiah writes, “could use some backup.” That solidarity, Narasimhaiah continues, requires educating ourselves about the politics and communities involved, “sensitivity when interacting with diasporic South Asian youth who buy into Hindutva,” and “rigorous dialogue” with those already on the front lines of this struggle. Ramnath’s Final Straw interview cites several organizations that are fighting Hindu nationalism in the U.S., such as South Asia Scholar Activist Collective, South Asia Solidarity Initiative, Equality Labs (a Dalit feminist civil rights organization), and several others.

“For non-South Asian antifascists, there’s a need to act in solidarity with the South Asians who have born the brunt of exposing and combating Hindutva.”

More broadly and for all of us, there’s a need to foreground the interconnectedness of struggles. Narasimhaiah calls for “a joint undertaking that confronts Hindu nationalism as a transnational project inextricably connected with American capitalism, white supremacy, settler colonialism, and imperialism.” Similarly, Ramnath calls for uniting the struggles against fascism and colonialism, caste and white supremacy, and emphasizes that it’s important to confront “colonial structures and racial supremacist logics wherever they appear, and whoever carries them out” (255).

Elaborating on that last point, there’s a need for many of us to rethink old assumptions about what fascism looks like, what faces it wears, and who it serves. Otherwise, as has been pointed out more than once, we’ll be fighting 21st century battles with 1930s weapons. 

Photo credits:

1. President Donald J. Trump holds hands with Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India as they take a surprise walk together Sunday, September 22, 2019, around the NRG Stadium in Houston, Texas. Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead (public domain), via Wikimedia Commons.

2. Path Sanchalan Bhopal by Rashtriya Swam Sevak Sangh, October 23, 2016, photo by Suyash Dwivedi (CC BY-SA 4.0), via Wikimedia Commons.

Jun 24, 2023

On the dangers of liberal antifascism: A reply to Robert Reich

Longtime antifascist Paul Bowman criticizes liberals who collapse the difference between fascism and right-wing populism to score electoral points. 

By Paul Bowman 

This is a response to Robert Reich’s piece in the Guardian of Saturday 17th June, entitled “Trump and the Republican party exemplify these five elements of fascism.” As Robert Reich and most of the Guardian readership are not regular readers of Three Way Fight blog, obviously this is not a direct response in the sense of hoping to reach the same audience as that article. But as militant anti-fascists we need to be aware of, and have theoretical and ideological counters to, the attempts by establishment liberals to weaponise anti-fascism for their own agendas.

Color-distorted close-up of Joe Biden's face with the words "We Are Living Through a Battle for the Soul of This Nation."
Joe Biden’s 2022 “Battle for the Soul of this Nation” speech used
antifascism to help win elections and reassert system legitimacy.

Reich’s five points

Reich’s professed goal is that the mainstream US media (he uses the Washington Post as an example) should stop calling Trump an authoritarian and start calling him fascist. “Professed,” because it’s unlikely that Reich is dumb enough to think that the legal departments of WaPo and co are actually going to green light that particular change to the paper’s stylebook. Instead Reich’s “transitional demand” is really a political ploy to create yet another grievance for liberals to harp on about. But if his “ask” of the media is a ploy, he is by contrast absolutely sincere in wanting to re-define fascism in a way that suits his agenda. To this end he puts forward five points that define the difference between the merely authoritarian and the genuinely fascist. He does so by means of a “compare and contrast” between the two, which we’ll come back to in a minute.

Point 1 – “The rejection of democracy, the rule of law and equal rights under the law in favor of a strongman who interprets the popular will.” There’s two parts to this. The first is illiberalism generally. The second is the specific role of the charismatic leader who leads, not by tail ending public sentiment via opinion polls, but in Reich’s words by being “the means of discovering what society needs.” Reich implicitly concedes that the first element is not unique to fascists, as authoritarians also share this. But he counterposes the fascist form of illiberalism as based on the transcendent role of the providential leader, come to embody the will of the common man.

Point 2 – “The galvanizing of popular rage against cultural elites.” Here Reich baldly asserts that authoritarians don’t do this and fascists do. This is the point where he really gives the whole game away because no reasonable person can read that heading and not think of populism.

Point 3 – “Nationalism based on a dominant ‘superior’ race and historic bloodlines.” Having fumbled the ball so badly on the previous point, Reich attempts a recovery with a point which is a lot more reminiscent of fascism. He tries to create a dichotomy between a supposedly non-ethnic “authoritarian” nationalism (presumably like an illiberal version of liberal “civic nationalism”) and an ethno-nationalism unique to fascism. It’s true that there are versions of fascism that put race above nation, but if Trump had stopped talking about “the American People” and just gone with “the White Race,” he would have never been elected in the first place.

Point 4 – “Extolling brute strength and heroic warriors.” Like point three, this is, on the surface of it, more familiarly fashy. Reich waxes lyrical: “For the fascist, war and violence are means of strengthening society by culling the weak and extolling heroic warriors.” Which is fine, for Mussolini or Hitler, true enough. But we’re talking about Trump here. The man who sacked John Bolton for his mania for starting a war against Iran. Although his claim to be the first post-war US president to not start a new war is the usual untrue exaggeration (see Reuters’ fact check), it is true that he didn’t initiate the kinds of military actions that Clinton and Obama did. Reich has gotten carried away with his own rhetoric here.

Point 5 – “Disdain of women and fear of non-standard gender identities or sexual orientation.” Reich opens by saying that authoritarians believe in hierarchy and order. And then goes on to say that “by contrast” [!] fascists believe in heterosexism and male supremacy. As if every conservative didn’t? Reich argues for a uniquely fascist heterosexist male chauvinism by tying it back to the previous point, saying “Fascism seeks to eliminate homosexual, transgender and queer people because they are thought to challenge or weaken the heroic male warrior.” But as we already discussed, Trump presents himself as a cosmic warrior against corruption and generalised evil, not a martial supersoldier. 

“We need to ideologically confront the racist, misogynist, homophobic and transphobic lies and propaganda of the authoritarian ethno-populist right, while also being ready to physically confront the street politics of fascist combat organisations through direct action and our own counterpower. We need to make clear the different challenges and different tactics required to confront these two distinct phenomena.”

Hiding the populists behind a strawman “authoritarian”

To sum it up, the fundamental theoretical sleight-of-hand that Reich is trying to pull off in his five points is setting up a false dichotomy between “authoritarians” and fascists. Upon closer inspection, the figure of the “authoritarian” is a faceless cypher, an a-historical strawman whose only function is to act as a foil to Reich’s “fascist.” When we look around the world today, from Italy’s recently departed Silvio Berlusconi, to Hungary’s Orbán, Turkey’s Erdoğan and many more besides, we see actually existing authoritarian right-wing populists who immediately give the lie to Reich’s strawman dichotomy. Do these populists present themselves as providential men of destiny who can embody the will of the common man? Check. 2 – Do they galvanize popular rage against “the elites”? Well, duh! 3 – Is their nationalism ethno-nationalism not the “civic” kind? Absolutely. (Check out Erdoğan’s “Karaturk” rhetoric or Orbán’s Magyar supremacism.) Right-wing populism and ethno-nationalism are so tightly entwined, we should really just call it ethno-populism. 4 – Do they extoll brute strength and martial values? Have you seen what the Turkish army is up to, lately? 5 – Do they rejoice in machismo and male chauvinism and demonise and openly call for the extinction of LGBT folks? Just take a look. All the way down the list of the five points, actually existing authoritarian ethno-populists do all the things that Reich says that authoritarians don’t do and is the true marker of the fascist. In other words, any right-wing populist politician is a supposed fascist, in Reich’s five-point schema.

Where’s the harm?

OK, so liberals gonna liberal, so what? I see two main dangers in the attempt by the Democratic liberal centrist establishment to instrumentalise anti-fascism. The first being a matter of narrow self-interest—i.e., the effects of this tendency on the militant anti-fascist movement itself. The second being the wider self-interest context of the social effects overall.

First a bit of history. This is not the first time a post-war centre-left political party has attempted to instrumentalise anti-fascism. In the early 1980s a number of large demonstrations against racism and fascism took place across France. These initial demonstrations were mainly self-organised by second-generation North African youth. The Parti Socialiste (PS) was in power under the presidency of François Mitterand (in office 1981-1995). Although elected on a wave of leftist optimism, Mitterand had ditched all the radical social-democratic elements of the 1981 electoral manifesto and now had little positive to offer the PS electorate. The PS seized on these organic anti-fascist and anti-racist demonstrations as an opportunity to create a negative reason for voting for them—“Vote for us, or the Front National gets in!” Mitterand modified the electoral system at the local, municipal, and regional levels (but not the crucial national one) to allow the FN to build a base and raise Jean Marie Le Pen up as a credible threat. The PS funded and supported an astro-turf anti-racist organisation “SOS Racisme” under the unaccountable despotism of a PS stooge, Harlem Désir. The French militant anti-fascist movement then came under attack from all sides for not submitting to the direction of this PS front and not limiting their tactics to the ineffective pacifist mass demonstrations of SOS Racisme. While the PS tactics hindered the militant anti-fascist movement and promoted the growth of the FN as a credible electoral threat, it ultimately failed to sustain support for the PS, which is today practically defunct.

So, in the present day, in the American context, the effort of Robert Reich and associated Democratic party faithful to instrumentalise anti-fascism against Trump in particular, and the GOP in general, risks replaying many of the same problems the Parti Socialiste imposed on the French militant anti-fascist movement. These are, in brief, the sowing of confusion in the minds of those sections of the public concerned about the rise of fascism and wanting to find an effective way to take part in the struggle; contributing to the criminalisation of militant anti-fascist direct action tactics; and the recentring of political attention on the passive, indirect action of electoralism. We could go into more detail on any of those aspects, but I think readers of this blog will be familiar with this territory.

“If the Democratic party ideologues make fascism into a party-political slur for electoral purposes, then the word will lose all concrete meaning.”

So much for the “narrow self-interest” issues. The wider issues are the ideological and political effects of labeling Trump supporters and the Trumpist tendency within the GOP as fascist. Here we risk doing the fascists’ work for them. The likes of Steve Bannon and other far-right ideologues that target the GOP grassroots in order to convince them that there's no ideological or political difference between their “Make America Great Again” values and those of the far-right and fascist groupings proper. They trade in slogans like “Not far right, just right so far.” If the Democratic party ideologues make fascism into a party-political slur for electoral purposes, then the word will lose all concrete meaning. Like the boy who cried wolf, the ability of the militant anti-fascist movement to mobilise for direct action against the rising genuinely fascist combat organisations will suffer. In short, anything that drives the followers of right-wing populism into the arms of the fascists, from a leftwards direction, builds fascism, rather than fighting it.

As militant anti-fascists we need to make clear that we are for making use of our free speech rights (such as they are) to ideologically confront the racist, misogynist, homophobic and transphobic lies and propaganda of the authoritarian ethno-populist right. While also, at the same time, being ready to physically confront the street politics of fascist combat organisations through direct action and our own counterpower. We need to make clear the different challenges and different tactics required to confront these two distinct phenomena not only within our own existing ranks of committed militant anti-fascists, but also to the wider audience of anybody who cares about the rise of hate in America. Being able to explain what’s wrong in accounts like Robert Reich’s piece is a start in that direction.

Paul Bowman was a founding member of Leeds Anti-Fascist Action in 1986, remaining active within it until its self-dissolution in 2004. He has contributed previously to Three Way Fight.


Jun 13, 2023

Editors' note

The article previously in this space has been taken down from Three Way Fight because controversy surrounding the article is beyond our capacity to address. We encourage readers to check out our previous publications about Russia's invasion of Ukraine, including the articles “Their Anti-Imperialism and Ours” by Linda Mann and “No longer a gendarme for the West: Simon Pirani on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine” by Matthew Lyons, as well as the list of “Antifascist Resources on Ukraine.”



Jun 3, 2023

Revolutionary trans politics and the three way fight: an interview with rowan

People holding signs at a trans rights rally; at center is person wearing a pink balaclava with sign that reads "Stop killing my trans siblings."

3WF: Trans and other gender-nonconforming people have become a major target of right-wing political attacks in recent years, and they continue to be major targets of systemic oppression and physical violence in U.S. society. How do you apply a three way fight framework to help us understand the contending forces in this situation?

Rowan: It feels important to start this out by speaking to the seriousness and urgency of this moment. Transgender people I know (particularly trans women) are panicking. Trans people are fleeing Republican-controlled states, and even trans women in Portland, Oregon, are considering and planning how to leave the United States. Parts of the country controlled by the right are passing laws that make it impossible for us to live as trans people, criminalizing our healthcare and our families. In some ways it seems that the kind of fascistic polarization that liberals were panicking about under Trump is occurring now for trans people, often without a peep from the liberals. The stakes are high, the moment is desperate, and this hardly feels like an academic discussion. This is a trans woman, the mother of a trans child, trying to think and to strategize about how we fight for our lives.

That said, clear thinking, beyond moralism and desperation, is essential if we are to survive this moment, let alone build movements for trans liberation that not only defend us, but fight for total liberation. I think this current moment of struggle around trans lives is a place where the three way fight analysis is incredibly useful.

The past decade has witnessed a real cultural transformation around gender in the United States. From Time magazine’s declaration of “the Transgender Tipping Point'' in 2014, to the widespread use of pronoun go-arounds in liberal social and business contexts, to Portland Public Schools implementing gender-neutral bathrooms, transgender people are more visible than ever, and in certain contexts more welcome and accepted. Whereas previous generations of trans people (and in particular trans women) were forces to live as outlaws, doing sex work or other criminalized labor to survive, today there are trans politicians and CEOs. The liberal ideological assumptions of trans liberalism tend to assume that being transgender is an inherent, innate, inborn, and immutable (perhaps even genetically determined) characteristic, that trans people are “born this way,” and that given that our condition is not our fault, we ought to protected by civil rights legislation and incorporated into the project of capitalist democracy. 

“We need to build a politics and practice that doesn’t seek assimilation into this society, but seeks the destruction of patriarchy and heterosexism. Rather than acting as a small minority political constituency for the Democratic Party, we need to build alliances with other oppressed people as we attack the systems that hurt all of us.”

In response to these changes, the right (Republican, Christian theocratic, and fascist) has come together to push back hard against the emergence of trans people as a force in society and against the room that we’ve won to survive. The backlash has been fast and fierce. Ideological and legislative attacks on trans young people have sought to keep them out of sports and from accessing gender-affirming medical care. These attacks have of course escalated, where now some states are for all intents and purposes banning medical transition altogether, teachers are being forced to out trans and gender-nonconforming kids to unsupportive parents, and the families of trans kiddos are being investigated by child protective services. The right is explicitly seeking, through legislation and media demonization, the elimination of transgender life. In the wake of the Black uprisings and the defeat of Trump, the right is seeking to scapegoat trans people. The right, the gender fascists, understand transness as being an ideology and a social contagion. They believe that if this transgender trend continues, sex/gender roles will come undone and western civilization will be overrun by gender anarchy. (Some anti-trans feminists oppose trans life based on a different framework that we’ll deal with later.)

So again, with the current struggle around trans lives we have on the one hand a sort of liberal defense of multicultural capitalist democracy, sometimes with an eye toward making it more equitable. In this moment of exterminationist anti-trans politics, I do think it’s probably worth distinguishing between transgender liberals, who are fighting for their (or their kids’) survival, but are doing so within a horizon of assimilating into capitalism, and the cis political establishment, which may be willing to give lip service to trans people, but, as of right now, seems pretty willing to throw us under the bus in order to compromise with the right and protect stability. On the other hand we have a right-wing coalition united around eliminating us, forcing us from public life, preventing us from accessing what we need to survive, and reducing us to a state of constant terror in order to force us back to our assigned sexes and assigned roles in reproducing capitalist patriarchy.

Our task is to build a radical pole that fights for trans liberation against fascism and capitalism. Let’s think about this as being a politics of revolutionary trans leftism, though it will certainly not include all transgender people and certainly not all leftists. We need to build a politics and practice that doesn’t seek assimilation into this society, but seeks the destruction of patriarchy and heterosexism. Rather than acting as a small minority political constituency for the Democratic Party, we need to build alliances with other oppressed people as we attack the systems that hurt all of us. While liberals argue that trans folks are born this way, and fascists say we’re mentally ill, we reject the violence of asking why we are the way we are in the first place, and we celebrate the beauty of trans life and of its potential to burn this world down.

3WF: In the interview we did two years ago, you also talked about the three way fight as “an ethical stance toward political struggle” and “a demand that radicals tell the truth.” How do you see that playing out with regard to transphobia and anti-trans oppression? To put it another way, what kinds of ethical dangers do leftists face in relating to this struggle?

Rowan: I think part of what I was getting at in that earlier interview was the way that the three way fight framework not only helps us understand our world and the contending forces within it, but can also help us understand and clarify our own values, politics, and tasks as leftists and as radicals.

So I think that the first ethical mandate of this moment, for leftists, is that we must take a side. In this moment where the right is pointing the spearhead of reaction at trans people, and seeking our extermination, standing aside is not an option. The survival of trans people, most of whom are working class, is not some kind of culture war distraction from the real work of class struggle. Any left that seeks to ignore this struggle is ethically and politically bankrupt. To ignore the attacks on trans people is to conciliate and enable them.

“The survival of trans people, most of whom are working class, is not some kind of culture war distraction from the real work of class struggle. Any left that seeks to ignore this struggle is ethically and politically bankrupt.”

This kind of position seems to be most popular among Marxists, particularly social democrats and Marxist Leninists (so called “tankies”). It is associated with a class-centric dismissive view of so-called “identity politics.” This ranges from social democrats dismissing trans people and our lives as identitarian distractions from the real class struggles to some “communists'' allying with transphobic feminists (and others) in their denunciations of trans existence as neoliberal or a conspiracy of the pharmaceutical industry.

It is certainly true that feminist, anti-racist, and queer politics are increasingly recuperated and defanged by capitalism and incorporated to defend the ruling class and its system of exploitation, and we need to be critical of this. Our commitment to liberating oppressed people must always be about building fighting bonds of solidarity for the freedom of all people, and that means the destruction of capitalism. But to use this reality to ignore or even oppose trans folks’ fight for our survival is reactionary and puts you in the camp of the enemy.

It is my sense that building some limited alliances with liberals is probably necessary in order to defend trans survival. If trans people are prevented from being out, from transitioning, from accessing medical care, from surviving, every other political task will be harder. We must build broad and popular movements to defend trans life and push back against and defeat the gender exterminationist right. Some of those people are going to be liberals, or otherwise hold pro-systemic politics that we reject.

That said, we need to go into building alliances with our eyes wide open. The reality is that too often, building alliances with liberals, whether we describe it as a coalition, a popular front, a united front, or whatever, means subordinating ourselves to them. The Democratic Party and reformist nonprofits tend to have power, resources, and sometimes a clarity of vision that often revolutionaries lack. Lacking these things, but engaging in joint struggle with our more powerful “lesser evil” enemies, tends to work out in practice as radicals functioning as the foot soldiers of other people's politics.

None of this is to suggest that we should content ourselves with the most radical political critique in a moment of crisis and urgency. Purity and sectarianism are hardly things we can afford in this moment of trans extermination. While the particulars of concrete struggles are best left to activists on the ground, it is certainly likely that we will need to build alliances with liberals in order to push back anti-trans attacks and to make and defend space to survive. The point is that when we, as radicals, enter into these alliances, we must do so as radicals. We should be building our own independent collectives, organizations, and projects. We should prioritize, and push for, forms of action, particularly direct action and militancy, that cultivate popular power and agency, not dependence on politicians and professionals. We should engage in political education that develops and promotes revolutionary visions of, and strategies for, trans liberation. We should never throw the most marginalized under the bus in order to win short-term reforms for the benefit of a few.

No matter what particular strategic and tactical decisions we make to defend ourselves and our communities, we need to be clear about what our politics are and about our critiques of trans-inclusive liberalism. Like most liberalism, pro-trans liberalism hopes to defend a more democratic and equitable version of existing capitalist society and its institutions from the insurgent right.

We need to avoid the liberal tendency to defend the institutions of official society from right-wing attack, whether in the streets or the legislature. We need to build capacity to engage in direct action to protect trans kids from being removed from their families. But we need to do so in ways that don’t act as if child protective services is an otherwise wholesome institution that is being corrupted or misused by the gender fascists. Rather we need to oppose these attacks in ways that expose the longtime white supremacy of these institutions and (particularly for those of us who are white) to use this opportunity to build solidarity with Black and Indigenous folks who have always been under the gun of these agencies.

At this moment, the right is attacking the standards and agreements for medical best practice. This does not mean, however, that the medical system and establishment in the U.S. has been historically, or always will be, somehow “on the side of trans people.” Certainly there are real victories that trans people have won in the realm of healthcare, but those are a result of struggle against stigmatization and gatekeeping, not of the fundamentally enlightened nature of these institutions.

Finally, the transphobic right has been really good at framing this as a “debate” as a grounds for dialogue and discussion. As someone who spent a lot of time in leftist political organizations I can appreciate the necessity of developing a comradely culture where we think through differences together to seek understanding and clarity, rather than vilification of our opponents.

But this is a fundamentally idealist misunderstanding of what’s happening. Fundamentally we’re not struggling over abstract questions of “What is a woman” and whether I should be considered one. We’re struggling for access to medical care, public space, and the right to care for our kids.

“We need political clarity that the forces trying to exterminate us are our enemies, even if they claim allegiance to feminism. At the same time, gender politics are shifting rapidly in ways that can feel confusing and disorienting for many who must be won over to gender liberation and a feminism that fights for all of our freedom. Striking a skillful balance between fierce clarity and nuance and care is always an important task for anti-fascists and other revolutionaries.”

This is not a debate. Fundamentally our task is not to convince people to change their minds and recognize trans people's humanity. We are fighting a war for the survival of our people. This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t have hard conversations with our friends, family, and comrades about trans life and liberation and seek to transform their perspectives. But we should never confuse that with a strategy of debating bigots and fascists instead of defeating them.

3WF: The relationship between pro-trans politics and feminism has gotten really complicated. On one hand, there’s an organic connection between trans liberation and women’s liberation, as different dimensions of a struggle against gender-based oppression, and in the ways that right-wing anti-trans campaigns are closely intertwined with attacks on reproductive rights. On the other hand, there’s a section of the feminist movement, many of whom refer to themselves as “gender critical feminists” and opponents often label as “trans-exclusionary radical feminists” or TERFs, who argue that a lot of trans-affirming measures actually bolster gender oppression and represent an attack on the women’s movement. Many (but not all) TERFs have even collaborated with right-wing forces around campaigns to demonize trans people and limit their rights. Without going into all the dimensions of this conflict, what are some guideposts you use to navigate this messy situation?

Rowan: I do really feel that feminist politics are so precious and necessary. If our movements are not centering women’s liberation and targeting male supremacy, then we are engaged in patriarchal reformism, not radical struggle. The rich, diverse, and often contentious theory and history of radical, socialist, and revolutionary feminisms is an essential toolset for us, and one that trans people today are at the forefront of developing and pushing forward.

I appreciate you linking the right’s attacks on trans people with their attacks on other forms of bodily and reproductive autonomy, particularly the right to abortion. These efforts feel very much connected, as attempts to mandate a very narrow vision of white patriarchal heterosexuality and to punish and try to exterminate any deviations from it. This is gender fascism.

The reality is that liberatory feminism today must be a struggle for trans liberation, and in this moment must center the struggle for trans survival, as we fight for the end of patriarchy and for the liberation of all women, trans and cis. It’s my sense that in the U.S. (and Canadian) context this is pretty clear to most people, even if our feminisms must always be pushed in more revolutionary directions as we resist cooptation.

And yes, there is the reality that some feminists are viciously anti-trans, in particular, the so-called “gender critical movement” (often referred to by their opponents as TERFs). I’m not going to go deep here, doing a holistic or deep analysis of gender critical politics. Instead, I’ll just mention a few ways that the three way fight framework is helpful in understanding our struggles against them.

In our previous interview I talked about how three way fight politics demands we tell the truth, to ourselves and to each other, even when it's inconvenient or uncomfortable. I think that in the struggle for trans rights and against gender fascism, we must also heed and uphold Amilcar Cabral’s call to “Tell no lies, claim no easy victories. Hide nothing from the masses of our people.”

I think that too often, trans people and our allies suggest that TERFs are not real feminists. That by virtue of their bigotry, and their participation in gender fascism, that their claims to care about women are lies. Gender critical feminists are feminists. They often have deep and organic roots within the radical wings of the women’s liberation movements of the 1970s, particularly within lesbian feminism. This means coming to terms with the fact that feminism is not, in fact, simply a synonym for “good politics.” Instead the women’s liberation movements were in themselves ideological battlefields, where millions of women (including some trans women) came together to figure out how to dismantle patriarchy and get free. Debates raged around sexuality, race, militancy, and capitalism, as well as biological essentialism and the participation of transsexual women. Feminism has always included the most vicious forms of white supremacy and middle class careerism as well as the most precious tools for total liberation. We cannot simply dismiss bigots like Janice Raymond, Mary Daly, Redstockings, and Adrienne Rich from the ranks of feminism. Rather, we need to understand building political unity and clarity as an always ongoing process. Our movements always face the danger of growing reactionary politics within them, and the only way to resist this danger is constant vigilance, self-reflection, and political education, not simply self-righteous denunciations of our enemies.

The reality is that some TERFs are building alliances with the right in order to attack trans people. It does often seem to be the case that the more these feminists center opposition to “transgender ideology” in their politics, the further they go from their left origins. This seems to be another example of leftists switching sides, or perhaps more accurately demonstrating that the line between friend and enemy is not eternal, but is a historical process, always in a state of transformation. The three way fight helps us understand the need to oppose anti-fascist researchers who become counter-extremism experts for CIA backed think tanks. It gives us a framework to understand and oppose anti-imperialist activists who become agents of Russian imperialism. In the same way it can help us understand (as our enemies) feminists who move toward a kind of emerging gender fascism, out of their commitment to “protecting” (cis) women.

As with any other right wing forces, we ought to regard hardcore gender criticals as our enemies, while recognizing that their arguments and assumptions are far more widespread. Challenging transphobia and transmisogyny within our movements and social milieus is a part of fighting it in the society, though different kinds of contradictions require different methods of struggle.

I’m honestly not sure what the best ways are to struggle against the GC movement. I think we need political clarity that the forces trying to exterminate us are our enemies, even if they claim allegiance to feminism. At the same time, it is true that gender politics are shifting rapidly in this period in ways that can feel confusing and disorienting for many who must be won over to gender liberation and a feminism that fights for all of our freedom. Striking a skillful balance between fierce clarity and nuance and care is always an important task for anti-fascists and other revolutionaries, particularly in a moment where political alliances and political categories themselves are in such a state of flux and instability.

The gender critical TERF movement are often the anti-trans bigots that we have the most proximity with. They are often the folks we’re most likely to encounter online or in LGBTQ community. But, at least in the United States, they are hardly the driving force behind anti-trans legislation and violence. They are at most junior partners, or perhaps a token radfem ladies auxiliary to the real power on the right, which is driven by Christian nationalism and male supremacy. This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t oppose and defeat them, but in doing so we should not confuse proximity with power.

Madrid Pride 2016. Banner translates as “We choose our bodies, we conquer our rights.”

In a lot of ways the most important rebuttal to gender critical bigotry was developed long before “the Transgender Tipping Point.” The work of radical Black feminists like Audre Lorde, Barbara Smith, bell hooks, Pat Parker, and so many others was a fierce critique of white feminists' delusions of universal sisterhood and the natural solidarity of shared girlhood. Instead, Black feminists (and other feminists of color) understood that women were divided in many ways, some of which made meaningful political solidarity impossible. Feminist solidarity comes not from a given unity of experience, certainly not a biologically essentialist one, but instead comes from the difficult but necessary work of building coalitions and new subjectivities, where we can struggle together across differences for the liberation of all of us.

3WF: Who are some trans radicals—writers or organizers—who are making particularly valuable contributions to revolutionary left trans politics? Are there particular books, articles, or websites that are helpful in this regard?

Rowan: There are so many amazing trans radicals out there, doing amazing work organizing their workplaces, doing mutual aid, street-fighting with the police, teaching each other to shoot, and simply helping each other survive. It’s really my sense that so many movements and struggles in this period are led by trans people in ways that weren’t necessarily true when I was first getting radicalized. I am so deeply inspired by young trans rebels and radicals, and folks should recognize that the attacks on trans people are not simply attacks on trans people but also attacks on the possibility of a future radical politics.

There are also a lot of amazing trans radicals thinking and writing right now, whose work has shaped my own thinking. Honestly, I’ll probably only be able to mention a few here.

M.E. O’Brien is a communist trans woman who writes a lot about gender politics, family abolition, and “communizing care.” She’s also the co-author of an amazing communist speculative fiction novel, and is an editor of Pinko magazine. Her work is probably one of the biggest influences on my own politics around gender and trans liberation.

Jules Joanne Gleeson and Elle O’Rourke’s anthology Transgender Marxism is a really valuable attempt to think through the relationship between gender liberation and anti-capitalist politics in this moment, and Gleeson has written a number of great essays exploring these connections.

Jules Gil-Peterson’s thinking about trans identity and state violence is a really precious resource in trying to think through a liberatory path that can challenge both gender fascism and “pro-LGBTQ” liberalism. She’s written a book on the history of trans children and is a host on the Death Panel podcast where she consistently says smart and radical things.

Vicky Osterweil, author of In Defense of Looting, is very smart, and whenever I’ve read articles by her or heard her on podcasts I’ve been inspired by her politics.

Miss Major is a Black radical trans woman who has participated in organizing trans women sex workers and prisoners for survival and liberation since her involvement in the Stonewall rebellion.

Val Travesti is a trans woman who is coming out of Maoist politics, who uses some of the thinking developed by J. Sakai and Butch Lee to try to develop a revolutionary anti-imperialist and radically feminist politics of trans liberation [for example here and here].

Dean Spade is a radical trans writer and lawyer whose work is helpful in understanding the limitations of reformism and the necessity of militant community organizing.

Margaret Killjoy works mostly as a cultural worker, writing science fiction and making heavy metal music. She’s also a brilliant thinker who ties anarchism, anti-fascism, and trans liberation together in compelling ways.

Kai Cheng Thom is a writer, poet and activist in Canada who writes a lot about interpersonal violence and community care and healing from a radical perspective.

Finally, Leslie Feinberg was and remains a huge influence on me. They were one of the folks who was really foundational in developing trans politics in the 1990s, and always did so in a way that was rooted in building solidarity against all oppression (even if I don’t entirely share their particular brand of Marxist-Leninist politics).

3WF: Is there anything else you want to add that we haven’t covered already?

Rowan: To cis leftists: Now is the time to step up and defend trans people from right-wing attacks. This is absolutely an ethical and moral obligation in this moment of history. We will all be remembered for how we either stood aside or fought in this moment. The way to transform this struggle from being a “culture war” issue between gender fascists and LGBTQ liberalism is to put resources and energy into supporting the development of revolutionary trans politics. Also, so many of the most active and fiercest rebels and leaders in movements against capitalism and the state are trans people. From fast food workers organizing to rebellions against policing, transgender fighters are in the lead. To abandon them to those seeking their extermination can only weaken us all.

To trans people and our allies: We have no choice but to fight for our survival in this frightening moment. We do have a choice of how to fight. We can fight for a liberal politics of assimilating into this dying empire, throwing the most marginalized and vulnerable among us under the bus as we do so. Or we can fight for trans liberation in ways that prioritize trans people of color, trans workers, incarcerated trans people, trans sex workers, and that are guided by a vision of solidarity with all oppressed and exploited people and the total transformation of the world. 

Photo credits:

1. Protest against anti-trans violence, 21 January 2023, London, UK, photo by Alisdaire Hickson (CC BY-SA 2.0), via Wikimedia Commons.
2. Orgullo Madrid (Madrid Pride), 3 July 2016, photo by Arturo Yelmo (CC BY-SA 2.0), via Wikimedia Commons.