Lessons of Charlottesville

By Rb Lyon, Fightback Canada and Revolution Scotland Editorial Board
The violent events in Charlottesville, Virginia, with open street battles between the forces of the American far right and a large contingent of counter-protesters, mark a new stage in the process of political polarization taking place.

The fascist terror and violence in Charlottesville with dozens injured and culminating in the murder of Heather Heyer, an activist and Bernie Sanders supporter, is not a one-off event, but an expression of the profound crisis of capitalism.

The events in Charlottesville graphically show us the danger the far right represents and should serve as a warning to all organizations of the working class and on the left. The far right is gathering strength and has come out into the open, but its strength must not be exaggerated. The task now is to understand what has happened and what it means, to study the rise of the far right, and get organized to fight against it.
Polarization to the left and right
As the crisis of capitalism deepens, the traditional establishment parties have proven incapable of finding a solution. Every attempt to establish economic equilibrium introduces profound social instability and vice versa. The economic and social impasse has resulted in the collapse of the “centre” and fuels the sharp polarization in society to both the left and the right.
In the United States, poll after poll show a growing interest in and the popularity of socialism. The process of polarization to the left is reflected in mass demonstrations and protests, the Occupy movement, the Bernie Sanders phenomenon, movements such as Black Lives Matter, the growth of the Democratic Socialists of America, and other currents, tendencies, and groups on the left.
The polarization to the right in American society has been reflected in the rise of the so-called alt-right and the emergence in its wake of far-right and fascist groups. The far-right and fringe fascists, trying for years to ditch their paramilitary outfits and bed sheets for polo shirts and khakis, sought mainstream respectability behind the façade of the alt-right. But behind this mask, the ugly forces of American fascism and the far right began to group and come together.
The victory of Trump represented this collapse of the centre and process of polarization in a confused and contradictory way. While his victory represented an anti-establishment sentiment on the party of many, one other result was that the far right has been emboldened by Trump’s victory.
Trump has surrounded himself with racists and fringe right-wingers, and has sanitized and normalized racism and hatred with his ignorant, bigoted rhetoric. With slogans like “Make America Great Again”, his attacks on immigrants and proposal for the wall, and talk of “taking our country back”, the far right sees a point of support in Trump and believe they are fulfilling his promises.
For months following Trump’s victory there has been an increase in racist attacks. Openly racist and fascist groups have been holding meetings and rallies in ever increasing numbers, promoting hatred and provoking violence everywhere they go. On a local level, in city after city across the United States, we’ve seen the emergence of anti-immigrant and racist gangs of “patrol squads”, anti-left street-fighting goon squads, armed militia groups, and openly fascist organizations.
Counter-protesters from across the left have met and confronted these racist, far-right meetings and rallies anywhere and everywhere. The racists and fascists come to intimidate and to fight counter-protesters. This is their stated aim.
This has inevitably led to clashes. Far-right rallies and the resulting clashes have for the most part been limited, small, and local. Driven by the crisis of capitalism and the process of polarization taking place at all levels of society, escalation has been implicit in the situation. This process of escalation culminated in the events in Charlottesville this weekend. This not only marks a new stage in the process of polarization, but itself will drive this process forward.
The Battle of Charlottesville
Nominally about opposition to the removal of a Confederate statue, the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville was intended to be a show of force, a coming-out party for the far right and fascists nationally.
The racist goon squads and fascist thugs came looking for a fight. They terrorized Charlottesville for the entire weekend. Fascists marched on the University on Friday night wielding torches, complete with Nazi salutes and chants of “You will not replace us”, “Jews will not replace us”, and “blood and soil” (evoking the Nazi slogan “Blut und Boden”). Before they were done, in a frenzy and looking for blood they had threatened and intimidated churchgoers and had surrounded and beat a group of student counter-protesters.
On Saturday, in the morning before the “Unite the Right” rally was to begin, far-right goons descended on counter-protesters, attacking them as they made their way to the counter-demonstration. One of the counter-protesters described the scene as follows:
“Eventually, hundreds and hundreds of white supremacists came walking or running or jumping down the streets, in successive waves. Sometimes they were dressed like Italian fascists; sometimes dressed like Donald Trump at a golf course, with white polo shirts and khaki pants and red “Make America Great Again” hats; some Nazis were saying, “Sieg heil!;” and some were saying, “Heil Trump!” It was Nazis of all stripes — proud boys Nazis, and Nazis in camouflage fatigues, and then your normal KKK Nazis. You’d see one group of Nazis, then another group of Nazis, and then another and another, and another.”
Small clashes and street fights between the fascist thugs and counter-protesters escalated into open brawls and street battles. After the rally had been declared an unlawful assembly by police and the crowds were dispersed, a group of fascist thugs decided to go to public housing and attack black residents at a housing project. The residents resisted and fought off the fascist attack as antifa and counter-protesters came to help.
As the counter-protesters were making their way back to the park, they joined together with a Black Lives Matter march. This was when James Fields, in an act of pure terrorism and an effort to kill as many people as he could, drove his car into the crowd of counter-protesters, killing Heather Heyer and injuring 19 others.
A new stage
The “Unite the Right” rally was organized following a similar, smaller “alt-right” rally in Charlottesville in May which had been quickly dispersed by police after clashes with counter-protesters. Various figures and groups on the far right wanted revenge and a show of strength, and spent months planning the “Unite the Right” rally. Members and followers of far-right groups came to Charlottesville this past weekend from across the United States, most reportedly from out of state.
While the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville is now considered the largest white supremacist gathering in a decade or more, after months of planning it was estimated by some in the media that there were only an estimated 500–1000 people in the fascist camp. In any event, by all accounts they were drastically outnumbered by the counter-demonstration, which was at least double the size.
However, the consequences and meaning of the events in Charlottesville cannot be ignored. The rally itself does mark a new stage in the development of the far right. With the alt-right serving as an umbrella, various local far-right groups are linking up on a regional and national level and coalescing around common slogans and common organizational and political aims. From smaller, isolated groups they are trying to form a national network.
However, though Charlottesville marks a new stage in the development of the far right, the strength of their forces should not be exaggerated. The far right has clearly grown stronger and bolder, but their forces remain small. Though growing, they remain small and weak on a local and national level.
The fascists are drawing closer together as a movement in embryonic form nationally in the United States. This is cause for concern and requires immediate action, but we must not exaggerate the scale or extent. There is no immediate danger of the rise of fascism as such, nor are the fascists anywhere near assuming state power.
What is fascism?
Historically speaking, fascism arose as a reactionary force in the 1920s and 1930s out of the intense crisis of capitalism following the First World War. What made fascism unique was that it had a mass base which the capitalist class could use as a battering ram to smash the working class and annihilate its organizations. As a special form of reaction, it was used as a measure of last resort by the capitalist class to atomize and crush the working class and save the capitalist system.
In the interwar period, the crisis of capitalism hit the working class hard – in the form of intense attacks on working and living conditions, attacks on wages and rampant inflation, factory closures, and massive job losses. At various times throughout the entire interwar period, the crisis of capitalism led the working class down the road of socialist revolution.
Class conflict and revolutionary struggle on the part of the working class meant fierce state and extra-parliamentary repression in the form of physical attacks on the workers’ organizations by the capitalist class and the state. Groups of armed thugs like the Freikorps in Germany served as auxiliary organs of state repression. Fascism finds its origins partially in such groups, which were often employed by the ruling class and the state to terrorize the working class. However, organizations like the Freikorps were not powerful enough to completely smash the organizations of the working class.
At a certain point, the revolutionary crisis of society leads to a point where the bourgeoisie can no longer rule on the basis of normal parliamentary, police, or military means. The capitalists can no longer contain the working class or maintain their class rule without utterly smashing the organizations of the working class. This was the historic role of fascism.
The crisis of capitalism also hit the petty bourgeois masses hard. Squeezed by the crisis and crushed by finance capital and big business, the small businessmen and office workers, professionals and civil servants, small traders, small shopkeepers, and peasantry suffered closures of their shops, the loss of jobs and income, and faced obliterated savings and financial ruin. This too drove the petty bourgeois masses to political activity.
Because of their position in society, with an indirect relation to production, and finding itself between the working class and the capitalist class, the petty bourgeoisie cannot act independently politically, cannot find an independent way out of the crisis, and tends to fall into the camp of either of the two other classes when struggling openly to find a way out of economic and social crisis.
If the working class cannot successfully lead a revolutionary struggle and show a way out of the crisis for these middle classes, as was the case in the interwar period in Italy, Germany, and Spain, the increasingly embittered and enraged petty bourgeoisie can begin to turn towards reaction. In the context of the interwar years, this meant that they eventually became the mass base of support for fascist counter-revolution.
The petty bourgeois was frantic and furious, and with the failure of socialist revolution came to see their saviour in fascism. Finance capital and the big bourgeoisie were utterly desperate for a resolution of the crisis in their favour. With powerful, mass fascist movements prepared to go to the end, the big bourgeoisie had found the special tool it needed to smash the working class and its organizations.
As Trotsky explained, “Through the fascist agency, capitalism sets in motion the masses of the crazed petty bourgeoisie and the bands of declassed and demoralized lumpen proletariat – all the countless human beings whom finance capital itself has brought to desperation and frenzy.”
Under the pressure of the crisis during the interwar period, the German, Italian, and Spanish ruling classes came to the conclusion that the very existence of the workers’ organizations, the only weapons the workers have to defend their interests and conditions, were an obstacle and incompatible with the continued existence of capitalism. From the perspective of the ruling class, the trade unions and the workers’ parties had to be smashed in order to ensure the enslavement of the working class and resolve the situation in the favour of the capitalist class.
The total terrorizing of the working class and the total destruction of the workers’ organizations required the services of something beyond “normal” state and extra-parliamentary repression. It required the tool of fascism – a mass movement of reaction. Unlike a more traditional military or police dictatorship, which lack a mass social base, fascism, with its mass base, was capable of utterly destroying all democratic rights and the organizations of the working class.
Based on the enraged and frenzied petty bourgeois and lumpen proletariat, the most despondent and backwards elements of society, the mass base of fascism allowed it to penetrate far deeper into the fabric of society than any military or police dictatorship, and on this basis it was able to thoroughly smash opposition at all levels. This is what distinguishes fascism from other forms of reaction and counter-revolution.
Balance of class forces
In exchange for destroying the organizations of the working class and saving capitalism, the fascists were handed total control of the state. The fascist regimes of Hitler, Mussolini, and Franco were given free rein to smash all opposition to the rule of capital.
But fascism, the distilled essence of imperialism, and the direct, naked, and violent rule of capital, could not suffer opposition. The naked rule of capital had to be protected against any and all threats. Once the working class had been smashed, the frenzied petty bourgeois, now mobilized and emboldened, in turn represented a danger to fascist rule. After mobilizing the petty bourgeoisie as a battering ram of reaction, in order to ensure the iron rule of capital, fascism strangled the middle classes through monstrous terror and repression by means of the bourgeois state, which was under their total control, and the repressive mechanisms of which they had expanded to an unprecedented degree.
The fascists were forced to betray their social base and fascism began to approach other, more “regular” forms of Bonapartist rule. Without its social base, fascism weakened and began to resemble other forms of military or police dictatorship.
The ruling class in Germany, Italy, and Spain lost control over their state and were politically expropriated by the fascists. This was a Faustian bargain for the capitalists and a heavy price to pay for saving capitalism, but it does show the lengths they are willing to go to in order to preserve the private ownership of the means of production.
However, the ruling class burned their fingers very badly with fascism and they have not forgotten this. In Germany, the ruling class handed absolute power to an absolute madman and in the end lost half of Germany and Eastern Europe to the Soviet Union. Far from ensuring the victory they so desperately sought, fascism led to the defeat and humiliation of German capitalism. This is why, since the Second World War, the bourgeoisie has preferred to rule through the military or the police when reaction is needed to crush the working class and save capitalism.
Because of the experiences of the interwar years through to the Second World War, the capitalist class will not be so willing to hand over control of their state to the fascists. The police and the generals are more loyal and reliable servants of capital and are more easily controlled because of their economic and social links to the monopolies and finance capital as well as their direct connections to the state.
The students in Germany and Italy in the interwar period were largely the privileged sons and daughters of the bourgeois and petty bourgeois. They overwhelmingly supported the fascists at that time and were a large part of its social base. Working class youth did not go to university, they went to work in the factories. Today the situation is very different. Since the Second World War, capitalism has been forced to expand education services and open the doors of the colleges and universities to the sons and daughters of the working class in order that they can operate the machinery of modern industry. Students today, certainly the most active layers, are on the side of the working class and look to the left. It is no accident that the new left movements we see forming today are composed largely of the youth – young workers and students.
The working class is far stronger today than it was during the interwar period. The peasantry, a major element in the base of social support for fascism in the interwar years, no longer exists in the advanced capitalist countries. The rural population itself has shrunk and the urban working class has expanded greatly. The middle-class professionals, the civil servants, clerks, and teachers have been increasingly proletarianized. The balance of class forces is overwhelmingly in our favour.
The meaning of Charlottesville
The balance of class forces today means that the traditional reserves of social support for fascism as such have been eroded by the very development of capitalism itself. While fascist organizations are increasingly coming out into the open, coalescing, growing stronger, and becoming better organized, they remain small, isolated sects.
While composed of enraged middle class along with declassed and lumpen elements, they do not represent a mass movement of the enraged petty bourgeois. They have no mass base, and they demonstrated this weekend that there isn’t even much of a movement behind them.
What the fascist organizations did this weekend was send a message to the state and ruling class. They have issued notice that they are present, and that they are ready and willing to serve the ruling class when it needs them for the purposes of reaction.
They let it be known that when the ruling class grows tired of social protest movements such as Black Lives Matter, the fascists will be there ready to terrorize and attack them.
They let it be known that when the ruling class grows tired of the organizations on the left such as the labour, socialist, communist, and anarchist organizations, they will be there to terrorize and attack them.
They let it be known that when the ruling class wants to rid itself of the organizations of the working class such as the trade unions, they will be there to terrorize and attack them.
Trump doubles down
The response of President Trump to the events in Charlottesville was not unexpected. On Saturday, Trump equivocated and eventually blamed the violence “on both sides” and drew a moral equivalence between the white supremacists and those protesting them, thereby sanitizing racist hatred and fascist murder. This made the fascists very happy, but created a problem for the establishment and the media.
The Democratic and Republican establishment and the liberal-leaning media were outraged. In the face of the outrage over the racist violence and the terrorist attack and murder of Heather Heyer, the establishment and media found they were not in a position to openly deplore the anti-fascists.
Despite all the talk about “American values”, morality, civil rights, and equality, the real reason for the moral indignation of the establishment and the media is that the far right is not currently benefitting or helping the ruling class. In fact, the events in Charlottesville will in the end help the left. The establishment and the media would much rather continue talking about Putin and Russia, and not Charlottesville, which strikes at race and class issues.
In the face of fierce criticism, Trump finally denounced the KKK, the Nazis, and white supremacists, to the dismay of the fascists, causing some of them to have meltdowns. It was obvious that he was reading from a script clearly not drafted by him and in which he clearly did not believe.
From the perspective of the ruling class and the establishment, it would have been far better had Trump done this from the beginning. If Trump had clearly condemned the fascists from the get go, the media and establishment could have taken this as a given, as a no-brainer not worthy of much attention, and then quickly moved on to criticising the “extremism” of the anti-fascists and the counter-protesters, which they are now starting to do anyway. Then they could get back to focussing on Russia.
Trump clearly didn’t like having to bend to public pressure or being told what to say. The day after he denounced the fascists, he doubled down and again blamed “both sides”, as if people defending themselves from Nazis are to blame and after the fascists killed someone. Speaking off the cuff, he then claimed there were “fine people” amongst the fascists and attacked the counter-protesters, equating them with the fascists by calling them the “alt-left” and accusing them of causing the violence and “charging with clubs in their hands”.
The ruling class wants this whole thing to blow over, but because of Trump it just will not go away. Revolution advances under the whip of the counter-revolution, and the scenes of racist and fascist violence have enraged millions of workers and youth. Shocked at the violence, many people will be spurred into political activity to stop the far right. The events in Charlottesville will radicalize people and only make the left more determined and organized.
Bad apples
Some liberal commentators in the bourgeois media have taken a psychological approach to the question, as if the rise of the far right, the rise of the physical forces of reaction, can be reduced to the question of a few bad apples. Many point to failures in the education system, parenting, addiction and abuse or a confluence of socioeconomic factors that lead youth to join far-right and fascist organizations.
Indeed, there are a multitude of factors that combine in a complex way to determine one’s political beliefs. While a psychological approach may help to convince some on the far right of their ignorance and the error of their ways, this approach could never truly do anything about the movement itself.
As long as there is class society, there will always be a far right. Racism and the far right are an inherent part of capitalism. The ruling class foments racism and chauvinism to maintain inequality and ultimately their class rule. Capitalism cannot provide for all, and if we are fighting each other then we will not be able to unite and fight the ruling class as one, which is the only way we can win. As long as class society continues to exist, as long as there is capitalism, there will continue to be racism, exploitation, and misery, and the far right will continue to exist.
The question of the far right and the emergence of fascist tendencies is not a psychological question, but primarily a social question. There cannot be polarization to the left without polarization to the right. As the forces of solidarity and revolution coalesce and grow, so too do the forces of reaction and counterrevolution.
The forces of the far right have always been fed by the most backwards elements in society. The far right has always been composed of the most despondent, alienated, frenzied elements of the petty bourgeois, declassed elements and the lumpen proletariat. The ideas of the far right, the ideas of racism, hatred, and fascism resonate with these layers, crushed by capitalism, squeezed by big capital and in whose despair racism, chauvinism, nationalism, and hatred are bred.
The overwhelming majority of the population is working class. The social position of the working class in production, the common working and living conditions of we, the wage slaves, builds social consciousness. This social consciousness becomes the basis for solidarity, unity, and socialist ideas.
While this cannot explain the ideological development of individuals, it does explain why the polarization to the left in society is a mass expression and why, as this process continues and class consciousness develops, the masses will seek socialist solutions to the crisis of society.
The events in Charlottesville reflect the polarization in society and will also spur that
polarization forward. The far right may grow and attract a few new followers, but not many. Many, many more will join our side. The disgusting scenes of racist and right-wing violence have enraged millions and many will be spurred into action and become politically active. Young workers and students are interested in socialism and revolution to an unprecedented degree. One of the keys to defeating the far right and fascists will be building a vibrant, mass socialist movement that can confront the threat of the far right head on and overwhelmingly defeat it.
Fighting fascism
We must maintain a sense of proportion. There is no immediate danger of the rise of fascism as a mass movement of reaction. But this does not mean that the emergence of far-right and fascist organizations does not represent a threat and a danger. Though small, these are the physical forces of reaction and counterrevolution, which makes them inherently dangerous. This was proven in Charlottesville this past weekend.
Given the historical experience of fascism in Europe in the interwar years and the Second World War where the ruling class burnt its fingers, and given the changes in the class balance of forces since then where the mass social base of fascism has been significantly eroded, the bourgeoisie is unlikely to hand state power over to the fascists again.
When the ruling class comes to the conclusion that democracy must be jettisoned in order to preserve the capitalist system, they will most likely use other means – but to do this they first need to defeat the working class. Gangs of fascist thugs will play an auxiliary, extra-parliamentary role in reaction and counter-revolution, and will be used to harass, terrorize, and attack the working class and its organizations. This is why these organization remain a direct, physical threat to social movements, the left wing, and the organizations of the working class.
Some liberals have said they hope that after Charlottesville, we will no longer see such displays of white supremacy and fascist violence. However, the far right and the fascists will not be going away anytime soon. They have already threatened vigils, rallies, and meetings in the aftermath of Charlottesville. Far-right and fascist meetings and rallies have already been scheduled and announced in cities around North America. Racist attacks and clashes will continue. There will be ebbs and flows in the struggle against the far right to be certain, but the conflict will continue and they will remain a threat.
The organizations of the working class and the left cannot expect anything from the police. Calls for the police to do something about the far right or to disarm them will fall on deaf ears. Even if some of these demands were met, only the workers’ organizations would be able to implement and enforce them. As an institution, the police are protectors of private property and a key part of the bourgeois state. As the class struggle intensifies, they will openly become the frontline defenders of the dictatorship of capital.
From a class point of view, they have the same job as the fascists, only they do their job in an official capacity. This means that the police are no friend of the working class. We must fight against the reaction with our own means and our own methods.
The situation in Scotland and the UK is different from the situation in the United States but the events contain many similar lessons. The same polarization is taking place and the far right will grow here as well, just more slowly. The Scottish Defence League’s demonstrations in Wishaw and Alloa as well as the Far right Tommy Robinson’s clashes with Celtic fans in Sunderland show this. The events in Charlottesville should serve as a warning to the working class and the left. It would be extremely dangerous on our part if we sat back and ignored the situation under the naïve belief that the far right and fascists are not growing and developing here.
We must stand up against fascist aggression and attacks wherever and whenever they occur. Each time the fascists crawl out from under their rocks we must drive them back. However, the struggle against the far right and fascists must be a social struggle, part of the broader political struggle against inequality and exploitation, low wages and unemployment, racism and police violence, and all the misery and horrors of capitalism. Fighting the fascists through isolated confrontations between small groups will win us some battles, but not the class war. If all it took was street fighting to beat the far right, then we would have achieved complete victory long ago.
The consciously organized working class, acting in a militant and resolute manner, can stop the nascent fascist movement in its tracks. The first step in meeting the threat of the far right would be for the unions to organize mass rallies and demonstrations against racism and fascism in every city. This would provide the base of mass support and the mass organization needed to meet the threat.
A mass united front of all trade union, socialist, communist, anarchist, antifa and community organizations must be formed on the basis of support from the trade unions and these mass rallies. This mass mobilization of the working class, and our common solidarity and unity, will be key in the successful struggle against the threat of the far right and the fascists.
There are of course important political differences between all these groups, but it should be entirely possible for us to achieve unity on the question of combatting the fascists, while retaining the right of criticism. An injury to one is an injury to all, and we must be prepared to work together on this question and defend each other.
On the basis of this united front, the trade unions should facilitate and help organize the establishment of joint counter-demonstrations and anti-fascist meetings, and provide the resources and means to defend all meetings and premises of all workers’ and community organizations.
The growing threat represented by the far right and the fascists will not go away on its own. Through the common struggle of all workers’ and community organizations, based on the best traditions of class unity and solidarity, rooted in the mass organizations of the working class, along with a clear understanding of this threat and armed with a militant program for struggle against it, will we be able to deal with this threat.
The struggle against the far right and fascism are inherently connected to the struggle against capitalism. Racism, exploitation, and misery are component parts of the capitalist system. As a result, there will always be a far right under capitalism.
Under the conditions of capitalism in crisis and the process of polarization, the forces of the far right and the fascists will grow and become increasingly virulent. The only way to decisively defeat the far right and the fascists is the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism and the socialist transformation of society, which will give us the tools to put an end to the conditions of misery that breed racism, exploitation, and inequality.
•The people united will never be defeated. For solidarity, unity, and mass rallies organized by the trade unions against racism and fascism!
•An injury to one is an injury to all. For the common defence of all workers’ and community organizations against fascist threats!
•Workers unite against the far right. Fight back against fascism. They shall not pass!

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