To: Detroit/Seattle Workers' Voice mailing list
May 3, 2017
RE: Teach-ins at Iona College on politics and fascism in the age of Trump
Iona College is a coeducational Catholic College in New Rochelle, New York with about 4,000 students. It has little history of student activism, but the atmosphere changed after the election of Trump as president. 2,000 students attended one or other presentation during the teach-in "Freedom from Fear: Politics in the Age of Trump" on February 14; it lasted seven hours with 14 presentations, including "How Fascism Takes Hold", and spirited, orderly mass discussion. 21 students signed up for further activity. Then on March 8th there was a teach-in for International Women's Day. This, unfortunately, was during mid-term week, but still 500 students attended. And as a result of the teach-in, a number of students formed a student activist group, the first ever at Iona, which took part in leafleting in New Rochelle. They also reached out to local RESIST groups in Westchester County who participated in the March 8th teach-in. One issue which is arising is the obsession of various groups with simply electing Democrats. A third teach-in, "Brinkmanship with the Planet: The Politics of Climate Change", took place on April 20. This time students took over organizing the teach-in from left-leaning faculty; they encountered a number of problems; but still 200 students attended.
Below is a report on the local political ferment and the teach-ins by one of its organizers.
* The movement
This is the deepest, most widespread political upsurge since the early 70s. And it's real. However, the political center has shifted so far to the right for 40 years, what seems like rebellion is pretty mainstream stuff. The issues are completely different from 50 years ago, but people have to start from where they are. The people under 30 have been polled on how they self-identify politically, and 40% polled as socialist. Of course that is Sanders' "socialism", but it's something. That generation never had to overcome the endless anti-communist propaganda we suffered through, but then again, the economic crush is far worse now. A lot of the movement now is the shock that capitalism is an affront to people's culture, sensibilities, and welfare, so they are beginning to strive for "European socialism" as a remedy.
So when I say we had some Marxists at among faculty and students at the teach-ins, it is in the Democratic Socialist, Bernstein tradition. So I would put Marxist in quotes. Anyway, even that was refreshing given the last 40 years. The working class role in all of this is more important: students are less political than 50 years ago, and only a handful have even started reading the basic features of class analysis and politics. The action is in the decimated working class. The women's movement has taken the lead, and the merger of women with Black Lives Matter has the possibility of real left politics. That's what's exciting.
And this is a world-wide movement. I think it's because the decimation of both the working class due to inequality being at an all-time historic high, and because the left has been mostly wiped out by US imperialism around the world, with Russia's help. The working class is now resisting, and they are prey for these right-wing parties that have been around and are now being used, and are well funded, to secure the inequality that abounds. That's where Trumpism comes in: pose as the savior, then crush the workers before they know what happened.
* Trump country
I live in Trump country. Besides the handful of racists and Fox News ditto heads, most of the others would have voted for Sanders over Trump. It's not ideological. Workers are looking for a life preserver, and the first thing thrown their way they are going to grab at. There is no working class party, so what choice do they have? The rise of Trump exhibits the same factors that Hitler used: the Social Democrats in Germany abandoned the working class like the Democrats have done here since 1984; like in Germany, the right was able to play on the discontent among workers and offer promises of quick solutions. Without a left party, they were free to exploit the situation here. But it can't last as their reactionary agenda unfolds to make matters worse for workers. But there is still no left alternative!
* The Teach-ins
After the Women's March erupted spontaneously, I started talking to left-leaning faculty, and we came up with the idea of a teach-in. The students here, like most colleges these days, are mostly apolitical. They are crushed by debt, struggling to secure jobs for the future, and they don't see the immediate call for political action, even political discussion. So we thought a teach-in would be the perfect educational, teaching moment to shake things up. Iona has been historically sedate in political activity, even the Democracy Matters chapter folded. We were just hoping we could start a conversation, and we even invited conservatives to speak (they hate Trump too, but they didn't show up). But we got a real taste of where the movement actually is these days.
The first session took place on Feb 14th. It lasted 7 hours, with 14 presentations, with discussion after each. We held it in the campus central auditorium, and students came and went as periods changed. A total of 2,000 heard at least one presentation, about 50 stayed all day, and the peak session, on "How Fascism Takes Hold", was held when their were no classes, and we had about 400 students. Some of the students were brought by their teachers, but even they got into the debates. The atmosphere was overwhelmingly anti-Trump, as you might expect, and each session had questions about "what is to be done?" So we posted a sign-up sheet so students could sign up for a political action discussion group. Here are the presentations. Don't let the titles fool you - some were very militant and uncompromising, and all were to the point politically. I learned a lot.
There were only three or four sign-ups until the talk on how fascism takes hold, and then there were 21; the talk hit a nerve and the only complaints to the college about the event were about this talk. To the college's credit, they didn't give in to the complainers.
The second teach-in was held in conjunction with International Women's Day on March 8th. Unfortunately that was mid-term week, so attendance was less for a 3 hour, 4 presentation event, but there were 500 students. The agenda was a follows:
The discussion group that was formed afterwards reached out to community groups in New Rochelle. There is also a network online through MeetUp, an organizing app for profit, which has 60 people locally signed up, which formed about the time we organized the teach-in. There are other MeetUp Resist groups in nearby White Plains and Yonkers which are much larger and more active. We plan to meet with various of these groups.
The third teach-in took place on April 20, with about 200 students taking part. The presentations were as follows:
(Based on a presentation at the teach-in on "Politics in the Age of Trump")
Fascism is an ideology generated from the union of modern industrial capitalism with the mass participation in politics since the late 19th century. It stands in stark opposition to democracy and socialism. Socialist, feminist, freethought, and free speech movements all bloomed in the 1870s and 80s. The glue that held these movements together was the working class entering the national political arenas around the world. In France, the Paris Commune of 1871 symbolized the threats to the capitalist ruling classes.
In reaction, philosophers like Sorel, La Bon, and Nietzsche advocated a conscious movement which employs sections of the population, mainly the working class, in a counter-revolutionary movement. They made use of the political tactics of the socialists and these other progressive movements as a means to seize state power for opposite purposes. It was a formula for extreme repression of the working class while employing them to carry out this reactionary scheme. Fascism is the reaction against the Enlightenment, positivism, and materialism, against the age of revolutions started by the French Revolution in 1789, and escalated in waves by the revolutions in South America in the 1820s, the 1832 and 1848 revolutions in Europe, and the Paris Commune. As Goebbels, the second in command in Nazi Germany, said on assuming power, "The year of 1789 is eradicated from history."
Bourgeois scholars have attempted to confine the phenomenon of fascism to national characteristics of Italy and Germany. If you read the literature on this in the 1950s and 60s that's all you can find. Yet several countries even before that had followed the same path, like Spain. Far from a national characteristic, it is instead a class characteristic employed when the rule of existent oligarchies in power are threatened, especially when the forces of capitalism create inequality and poverty to unsustainable levels. Fascism is a world-wide political trend rooted in the ruling classes' dilemma in controlling the masses. When industrial capitalism threw together the masses of workers, they created a political force. Fascism sought to mobilize enough sections of that force to maintain absolute power, especially in times of crisis.
Elements of Trumpism (Donald Trump's effort to implement the American version of fascism, a proto-fascism so far) are the end result of decades of efforts by right-wing groups highly financed by American capitalists to establish reactionary norms. The characteristics of fascism can be seen in this reactionary program beginning in earnest in the 1970s in reaction to the upsurges of the 1960s. To fully understand the history of laying the foundations of Trumpism, we must understand these characteristics. Several scholars have outlined the characteristics of fascism from Mussolini in Italy, to Hitler in Germany, to Franco in Spain, to the Shah in Iran, to Suharto in Indonesia, to Pinochet in Chile. Umberto Eco, Lawrence Brill, and Mark Neocleous provide two of the better summaries of the characteristics, but there are many other scholars. As well, since these fascist traits became evident in America in the past few decades, American writers like Naomi Klein have addressed them.
In summary, here are characteristics of what all of these regimes have in common as markers of what faces the masses if left unorganized to resist it (the starred characteristics are components used to mobilize elements among the people into supporting fascist ideology):
*1. Fervent nationalism; all personal, group, and class interests are forcibly subsumed within the NATION which is the central tenet of fascism, as the god to serve. "Make America Great Again" (the same theme was used in Germany), "America First"(pro-fascist forces in America in the 30s used this) – the fatherland uber alles. Cheney's "Homeland" in 2002 mimicked "Heimat" used in Germany, in contrast to the rest of the world conquered by the home country. Internationalism is the greatest evil.
2. Disdain for human rights; the Enlightenment's eventual program of "all men are created equal" is denied, and the rights of man are negated; everyone outside the leading core of the nation have no rights, torture is acceptable, women's personal health and social issues are denied; individual rights are non-existent to fascism; collective rights of the working class are detested.
*3. Organizing is based on racism, or against an 'other', using them as scapegoats to rally against, Jews in Europe, Muslims and Mexicans in Trumpism; Racial and ideological purity is artificially imposed, it proposes a hierarchy of races, and diversity is abhorrent.
*4. Supremacy of the military, glorifying war. "Permanent war footing" from Cheney; the constant promotion of advertising and pomp ceremonies at sports events; all is sacrificed to defend the homeland by invading and conquering other peoples.
5. Rampant sexism, all policies and emphasis are male oriented.
6. Media is discredited if not controlled. "Fake media" slogans used to undermine facts detrimental to their propaganda.
*7. Obsession with national security, inventing threats. Muslim bans, rights of people suspended in the name of national security.
*8. Obsessive preoccupation with community decline, either culturally or economically or individually; using the dispossessed workers to blame others like immigrants or government handouts to "lesser" groups; even the use of denouncing the international, global conspiracy for creating local decline (see next characteristic).
*9. Government by the few for the few – elitism – goes all the way back to Edmund Burke and reignited by the right with Friedrich HHayek. Attacks the financial overlords in propaganda to address #8, while allying with them to rule. This double-faced use of denouncing fatcats while their policies benefit them has always been a key feature of fascism – in Germany they extolled capitalism while blaming a non-existent Jewish financial conspiracy for local German decline. Trump denounced Wall Streeters and globalists for the economic problems while staffing his government with them and extolling monopoly capitalism.
*10. All power to the executive, autocracy, undermines other branches by suppressing and threatening legislature and judiciary. Rule by a powerful leader who is the only one who can save the powerless from disaster. Trump: "I am the only one who can solve these problems."; Stephen Miller(Trump aide): "he will not be questioned". Use of rallies continually to bolster the leader. Infallibility of the leader, Trump never takes back absurd statements and lies.
*11. Intertwines government with religion, as part of a backlash against science and reason; tradition is extolled and used for propaganda; creates memes like Jesus handing the Constitution to the founders. The evangelicals are the largest bloc of Trump support.
12. Corporate power is extended and protected (the elite rulers share power with economic elite) and capitalism extolled. Trumps cabinet are billionaire capitalists in the main.
13. Labor is suppressed, unions undermined or eliminated, a process started by Reagan.
14. Rampant cronyism and corruption
15. Election rigging/ suppression (claims illegals voted 3 million times as a pretext to justify suppressing voting)
16. Use of political violence; law and order agenda, militarize police (Bush uniformed patrols in FL in 2000; Trump rallies)
17. Intolerant of opposition or criticism
*18. Rule by creating or taking advantage of crises: crises of drugs and rapists pouring over open borders, voting by illegals, terrorism coming into the country with immigration; crises are invented. Shock doctrine used since Bush 43.
19. Big Lie, Orwellian propaganda: saying a lie over and over until it's accepted by enough people
20. Anti-intellectualism – reason and intellect are replaced by the will and the spirit, glorify the non-rational; facts are a matter of opinion, no objective reality
The fascist ideology is a world-wide political trend rooted in the ruling classes' dilemma in controlling the masses. Industrial capitalism, and imperialism, have created workers being thrown together to become a political force. The emergence of the socialist movement, and the other corresponding movements of the late 19th century, created a threat to oligarchs, and the reaction was to create a philosophy which can use the methods of mass organizing to the detriment of the working class, even as they staff the forces of the reaction. Trumpism is the result of years of building an ultra-right movement, which is why the right wing groups and parties (including most Republicans) support Trump. Trumpism is a bungling, clownish chapter in the history of fascism, but just as brutal and reactionary. It can't be normalized. It fits all 20 features of fascism listed above, some of which are in early stages, some have been normalized over the last 40 years.
Fascism has strong preconditions in American culture – slavery, religiousness, individualism, violence, glorification of war, anti-intellectualism. Little by little, the characteristics of fascism in the US have been well-financed and cultivated. In reaction to the upsurge in the 1960s, sections of the capitalist class established right-wing think tanks like the Heritage Foundation, the Cato Institute, and the American Enterprise Institute. These bodies helped pave the way for Reagan's election, and the course was set to escalate anti-worker, anti-women, and racist policies.
But that is only half the picture. Without the Democrats abandoning even the semblance of support for the working class since the 1970s, the preconditions for the growth of fascism could not take place. In Germany in the 1920s into the 30s, the Social Democratic Party had abandoned the German workers after the defeat of the workers' revolution in 1924. This left the workers vulnerable to fascist propaganda, especially after the Social Democratic Party helped minimize the Communist Party. That small section of the workers who voted for the fascists, along with the support of the Catholic Church, allowed the Nazis to take power with a minority of votes.
Similar conditions exist in the U.S. today: the left has been minimized, the workers more and more are faced with decreasing standards of living and a poor job outlook, the liberals have abandoned the working class, and invented international threats are part of the daily propaganda.
And indeed, Steve Bannon, Trump's primary advisor, and even Trump, have evidently been studying from the fascist handbook. They have consciously campaigned on many of the characteristics above; Bannon's quote about being a "Leninist" (leaving the absurdity of it aside) is actually a quote from Mussolini; Trump's gestures and facial expressions mimic Mussolini's speeches, and the fusion of the corporate elite with the new regime has abandoned previous bourgeois norms of ruling.
As inequality reaches ridiculous levels and people are becoming economically distressed, climate change threatens, and workers grow rebellious, the ruling class needs fascism. But Americans aren't fools, and we have learned from history. The mass upsurges in opposition to Trumpism are real and they run deep. And the gambit the capitalists are playing can turn into its opposite quickly with such a growing mass movement. <>
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Posted on June 17,