The Origins of American Fascism

By Roberto, Michael Joseph | Monthly Review, June 2017 | Go to article overview

The Origins of American Fascism


Roberto, Michael Joseph, Monthly Review


Donald Trump's presidency marks the most acute stage of the protracted crisis of U.S. imperial hegemony and its trajectory toward neofascism. The president, his closest advisers, and some key cabinet members are now promoting an openly racist, xenophobic, and nationalist ideology. As John Bellamy Foster has noted, none of this is new to rightwing politics. But he is right to argue that the scale and intensity of recent attacks on immigrants, women's rights, LGBTQ people, environmentalists, and workers signal a qualitative ideological break with the mainstream of liberal capitalist democracy. The question now is whether Trump and his circle of ultra-nationalist fanatics, Wall Street barons, generals, and assorted political hacks can engineer an American-style Gleichschaltung, "bringing into line" the rest of the executive, the judiciary, the military, and the media behind Trump's agenda "To Make America Great Again."1

Following Samir Amin's analysis of fascism's revival in contemporary capitalism, Foster places Trump's neofascism in a larger historical context, pointing out key differences between the "classic" German fascism of the interwar period and the neofascism of our own time. He also finds important parallels. Both forms of fascism arose at crisis points in the history of world capitalism: Germany in the 1930s was an advanced industrial nation-state crippled by the Great Depression; and the United States today (despite its unrivaled destructive power) appears increasingly as a moribund capitalist empire sapped by persistent stagnation at home and challenged abroad by the rise of China and rival imperialist blocs. Foster thus confirms others' characterization of contemporary U.S. neofascism not as a historical accident, but as a slow-building structural crisis, one that could very well become a crisis of class rule itself.2

Most importantly for my analysis, Foster cites a 1952 exchange between Marxist economist Paul Baran and MR founding editor Paul Sweezy, in which both agreed that fascism was one political form in the monopoly-imperialist phase of capitalism, making it difficult to recognize the precise "jumping [off] place" between liberal democracy and fascism. Following Baran and Sweezy, Foster sees this break at the point when a "severe crisis threatens property relations." This is the back story that explains Hitler's rise to power. Comparably, Trump's neofascism is the outcome of a protracted crisis that marks our own qualitative break from neoliberalism.

A Global Class Analysis

From the contributions of Baran, Sweezy and Foster, we now can focus on the centrality of class analysis in a renewed discourse on American fascism from its origins to the present. This approach provides new insights about fascism as a global phenomenon in the epoch of monopolyfinance capitalism. Generally, it highlights the social composition of national economies where class configurations resulted in fascism's break with liberal capitalist democracy. In the case of the United States, it suggests that we grasp the current neofascist threat as an historical product of fascist processes that took hold in the 1920s and 1930s when the country was rising to the position of global capitalist hegemon.

Here, an important but forgotten essay by Walter Goldfrank is quite helpful. In 1978, Goldfrank developed a comparative analysis of fascism in the core, semi-periphery, and periphery of the world capitalist system. For Goldfrank, the emergence of fascism anywhere in the world was determined by the level of capitalist development in each nation, from monopoly-finance capital in the core countries to those without capital and totally subject to the imperialist core, namely colonies in the periphery. Competing nations in the semi-periphery had some degree of advanced capital formation, but remained dependent on the core nations as centers of production and investment capital, making them, in Goldfrank's view, uniquely conducive to fascist movements. …

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