I struggled for a long time with my feelings about the events that transpired in Charlottesville, Virginia this past weekend. I want to be able to write an inspirational piece about how life-affirming it was to see so many people stand up to fascism, but that wouldn’t be accurate.
In case you weren’t paying attention, a coalition of neo-Nazis, Ku Klux Klan, Proud Boys, far-right militias, and other racist fascists convened in Charlottesville, Virginia to protest the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee from a public park. Anti-racist counter-protesters, many of them radical leftists, clashed with the Nazis and other fascists, and one woman, Heather Heyer, was killed by a domestic terrorist aligned with the alt-right.
Today, the country as a whole and the Left specifically are picking up the pieces and taking stock of where we stand. Saturday was the largest gathering of far-right activists in decades, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, and they have shown that they are willing to use violence. They are emboldened by Donald Trump’s presidency, and they will not be going away any time soon.
Two things are of crucial importance to understand in the wake of this tragedy: why these people exist, and how to fight them. I am also reflecting in an extremely distressing way upon how Christians should react to these people. Today, I only want to talk about the first question.
First, let us understand that while the leaders of this specific event were not working-class, the ideological support that lends their movement credibility comes from (white) working people. That’s who got Trump elected. With that in mind, let’s take a look back at the history of fascism and its two most successful experiments.
Allow me to quote at length from something Leon Trotsky wrote in 1940 (I am not a Trotskyist, but the man knew his fascism):
“In all the countries where fascism became victorious, we had, before the growth of fascism and its victory, a wave of radicalism of the masses — of the workers and the poorer peasants and farmers, and of the petty bourgeois class. In Italy, after the war and before 1922, we had a revolutionary wave of tremendous dimensions; the state was paralyzed, the police did not exist, the trade unions could do anything they wanted — but there was not party capable of taking the power. As a reaction came fascism.
In Germany, the same. We had a revolutionary situation in 1918; the bourgeois class did not even ask to participate in the power. The social democrats paralyzed the revolution. Then the workers tried again in 1922-23-24. This was the time of the bankruptcy of the Communist Party — all of which we have gone into before. Then in 1929-30-31, the German workers began again a new revolutionary wave…Only after these three tremendous waves did fascism become a big movement. There are no exceptions to this rule — fascism comes only when the working class shows complete incapacity to take into its own hands the fate of society.”
How do the situations of Italy and Germany, the paradigmatic examples of a rise in fascism, compare to the United States? Trotsky’s analysis is that fascism arises during times of great economic and social strife. Does that not describe the US in the 21st century?
We have a white working middle class that has been pulverized, decimated, and brutalized by capitalism’s neoliberal turn since the late 1970’s. As in the past, these material conditions push the working class either left or right, radical or reactionary – towards socialism or fascism. This is also why you are seeing a rise in Americans (especially millennials) turning away from capitalism.
The American Left is too weak to capture these people’s hearts and minds. Left-liberal Bernie Sanders tried and was stonewalled by the neoliberal establishment, for which even social democracy is too threatening. Faced with the choice of an establishment that is no longer working for them and a far-right alternative, too many Americans chose the bad alternative.
Much will be made of how the fascists at these rallies are just well-off white boys reacting to their privilege finally being challenged by a more progressive society. This is only half-true. The threat to their privilege comes not from progressive social views, but from a deterioration in the capitalist order that had once guaranteed their status as a labor aristocracy over people of color. Oppressed minorities are not gaining – the hood looks the same under Bush as under Obama as under Trump. But the white working class is losing (some of) their economic security, and they are scapegoating those weaker than them instead of blaming the ones who are truly responsible.
I could easily have ended up like those young men. I live within the same material conditions as the young white men at the rally on Saturday. I grew up lower-middle-class and watched as the Great Recession shoved me and my family unceremoniously into poverty. I am a victim of capitalism, a formerly-homeless poor single father living paycheck-to-paycheck, tens of thousands in debt, unable to claw my way out.
But then why am I a socialist while they are fascists? Why do I fight for black liberation while they don Klan robes? Why am I called to fight antisemitism while they chant antisemitic slurs?
This is the question that has weighed on my mind so heavily the past few days. Why are my fellow workers so blind to the reality of oppression? How can they blame the most disadvantaged, the most exploited people for the very real pain they are suffering? I understand their pain – I feel it as well. I know what it is like to grow up in a society that promised me the world when I came of age – a good job, a college education, the ability to own my own home pursue my dreams – and then have that promise crushed by forces beyond my control.
The thing that saved me, as cliche as it sounds, is Jesus Christ. I am not suggesting that everyone needs to be a Christian in order to not be a racist or a fascist (how many of the people in Charlottesville were Christians?) – just that Jesus is what did it for me.
Jesus taught me to always stand with the oppressed and marginalized – with the lepers, sinners, prostitutes, and tax collectors of the world. He taught me that the Kingdom of God means caring for each other, and especially for the ‘least’ among us – the starving, homeless, foreign, imprisoned. Most importantly, he taught me that standing against oppressive power structures is dangerous, but that it is the only path to salvation.
My commitment to Christ means that I can never turn towards reaction. I know the pain of poverty and exploitation – but that does not mean that I get to throw the already-marginalized and oppressed under the bus. Instead I must take up the cross of Jesus’s radical liberation movement and fight for them, against the racists and bigots who showed up in Charlottesville.
Fascists are not born, they are made. They are endowed with the same capabilities for love and mercy as we all are.
The corollary then is that we are all equally capable of the hatred and ignorance that stains their souls.
As capitalism fails more and more workers, more Americans will be tempted by the devil of fascism. I pray that instead we follow the example of Christ towards revolutionary liberation.