By Aneurin Delmas
In November 2016 the United States of America, the pre-eminent capitalist power on earth, went to the polls. The result has produced an outpouring of sentiment along the lines of ‘the end is nigh!’. Indeed, an uninformed observer would be forgiven for thinking that fascism now reigns and the workers’ movement faces a wave of bloody repression. Thankfully, it doesn’t – however bad things may seem at this moment.
Communists must analyse this situation, like any other, with the reasoned logic that we were once known for. This is essential if we are to arm the working class with the method and programme for success in its struggle to destroy the old order and construct a socialist commonwealth of humanity. I hope that my analysis of what led to Trump’s victory and what it represents may offer some small light to help us on the path to this higher goal.
Firstly, Clinton. Her credentials have been hotly debated over the last few months by all among the self-considered progressive tendencies. Their positions have ranged from being pro-Clinton because she’s a woman to rejecting her because of her role in US imperialism – and everything in between.
Fundamentally, among communists I do not think it was in doubt that Clinton represented the neoliberal establishment wing of the American bourgeoisie which has arguably ruled the United States since Reagan. Her whole candidacy had an almost dynastic aspect; given that her husband previously held the Oval Office and her own previous position as Secretary of State. I won’t spend long arguing over whether or not her victory would have been better; we must deal with what is. But I will briefly challenge several liberal distortions which have unfortunately made some headway within our movement:
- Clinton’s victory as a woman would’ve meant nothing in terms of female liberation as we understand it as communists (I am not talking here of policy, I am talking of that wing of our movement that has bought into the liberal myth that ultimately more women as CEOs and ministers of the capitalist state is somehow good for women as a whole). To make a comparison, the UK has now had two women prime ministers, both of whom, as Tories, have cut access to sexual advice services, refuges and other institutions that in some way to offset the systemic oppression faced under capitalism by women. Some liberal bourgeois feminists might claim that a female premier enacting these policies is still a gain as it shows girls they can ‘do anything’. I am sure that the unemployed former miners-wives and daughters of South Wales that struggle for work and dignity would beg to differ; just as I’m sure that the women bombed in civilian townships by American-made weapons are thrilled by this notion and I’m sure that the dead Berta Caceres sleeps just as disquietly in her grave, whether put there by the thugs of a puppet regime aided by a woman secretary of state or if it had been a male one. For us, as Marxists, an end to women’s oppression means an end to the structures of bourgeois society which enforce it. Not merely a few ruling class women allowed to pursue their dreams of running a system which systematically oppresses their working class counterparts. Spurn the rest and win the prize, if you will.
- Clinton meant a continuation of US imperialism. One need only listen to her campaign speeches to know this. This is not to argue that Trump doesn’t represent the same thing, merely that Trump’s position and victory doesn’t mean we should treat Clinton or Obama as some kind of progressive. Both Obama and Clinton were candidates of the neoliberal status quo.
- An independent workers’ position can, and must, be articulated. This should be obvious. It’s not our job to tail-end one faction of the bourgeois over another, but neither is it our task to tail-end and accommodate ourselves to other non-proletarian progressive or semi-progressive forces in society, such as they exist. It is not that alliances cannot (and they should) be made, but our ultimate goal is to drag these movements behind the workers’ movement in the quest to change society, which necessitates our right to criticise any ally at any given time (and vice versa: workers will only come to the best ideas through this form of open debate).
With these things in mind, we shall move on to Trumpism. What is it? What does it represent?
Is Trump a fascist?
The question of fascism has been raising its head a lot recently. It is not an unimportant question. Whilst a complete exploration of fascism in the modern era should be fleshed out in a future piece, we will confine ourselves to the application of this term to Trumpism.
Traditional fascism can broadly said to have been a phenomenon which began after the First World War in Italy and Germany. Leon Trotsky gives the most concrete definition of it as a movement of the middle classes, atomised craft workers and lumpen-proletarian elements financed by big business as a bulwark against the workers’ movement but still maintaining a certain amount of its own organisational independence from the bourgeois (at least until it achieves power) and a tendency to be both anti-capitalist in some senses (or certainly anti-finance capital) and yet also anti-communist (See Guerin, 1938). This is natural for a mass movement which brings together a contradictory set of classes: the artisanal, the atomised and small business owners. On the one hand they fear the loss of their own privileged position above the proletariat. On the other they find themselves constantly impoverished by large capital.
To add to this analysis I would suggest that certain other key components define fascism as a specific form of reaction (as opposed to other forms). These are:
- An independent source of force (that is, not merely the state’s) for the fascist party or mass movement. Fascism has always been accompanied by a paramilitary movement: something similar to the Brownshirts in Germany, the Blackshirts in Italy and the Falange militia in Spain. Really, this is just the natural expression of having some level of organisational independence from the bourgeois.
- Classically, fascism has been a response to the rising class struggle and the sharpening of class forces. The fascist reactions of the 1920s and 1930s were at a time of a genuine possibility of a victory for the working class movement.
- Finally, I would add that to this definition that fascism as a form (and particular form) of reaction should therefore only be understood within the historical context of the success of the Russian Revolution and the genuine existential threat its victory and the Soviet Union’s continued survival posed to capitalism.
No evidence has emerged that Trump maintained right-wing militias for this use. These sorts of groups do operate within the US (like the KKK), but only a fool would argue that those groups were organised and directed from Republican central command in the way that the Brownshirts and Blackshirts were. These groups in the US are probably far more analogous to Black Hundred groups in Russia at the turn of the last century: the semi-proletarian and peasant elements utilised by the Tsarist regime. What is the difference? It’s that the Black Hundreds never had a genuine chance of seizing power for themselves or being integrated into the state. They were only ever a force that the Tsarist state utilised as an auxiliary to their own armed might. The right-wing militias that haunt the dreams of many of our more jumpy comrades are not in any position to threaten the bourgeois state of the US, nor would it be in the interest of the ruling class at this minute to hand power to such unpredictable plebeian forces. Far easier for them to continue to rule through the state apparatus which is directly loyal to them, with the illusion of legitimacy and consent that comes therewith.
In relation to the condition of rising class struggle, currently the Left in the United States has no real prospect of achieving power in the short term. The revolutionary Left are in disarray and a small, insignificant assortment of various confused grouplets. The broader progressive movement is dominated by bourgeois forces and identity politics. The ruling class has no need of recourse to violent reactionary methods in such a climate against any but the militant wing of the black rights movements now expressing itself in the armed self defence of communities. However, unless the workers’ movement can broaden this movement against systemic racism into one which is against the systemic problem of capitalism, this will not develop into a movement which is existentially threatening for the bourgeois. This is not to say that a revolutionary movement cannot be built quickly, or to place a timescale on its construction. But currently there exists no force in American society which is ready and capable of challenging the bourgeois for control of society and wresting it from them. There exists merely the potential to build and the raw material from which such forces will be constructed.
Finally, it is not without good reason that I have mentioned the Russian Revolution and the fact that fascist reaction began after its successful capture of power:
The fascist movement in Italy was a spontaneous movement of large masses, with new leaders from the rank and file. It is a plebeian movement in origin, directed and financed by big capitalist powers. It issued forth from the petty bourgeoisie, the slum proletariat, and even to a certain extent from the proletarian masses; Mussolini, a former socialist, is a ‘self-made’ man arising from this movement (Trotsky 1931)
As we see, these men were not reliable bourgeois elements, they were men and movements of a much more varied composition. They represented a semi-independent class force (because atomised workers and petit-bourgeois or artisanal workers are unable to constitute a truly independent class position) that was in the end a bulwark of capitalism and which swung behind the bourgeois.
However, the very reason they were distrusted by the ruling class is their lack of reliability in terms of maintaining stable bourgeois rule. The contradictory nature of the class forces at work within fascist movements is most obviously demonstrated by the Nazi split and Hitler’s subsequent liquidation of the Brownshirts during the Night of the Long Knives. The contradictory alliance that created the party ultimately had to sublate itself in a bloody resolution to move forward. Without the existential threat posed by an existing socialist state (whatever deformities one lays at its door), it is inconceivable that the ruling class in the greatest superpower on earth would hand power over to this unreliable, unstable plebeian force.
We should also point out that Trump himself is a reliably bourgeois element. He is a billionaire, the son of a millionaire, born into that class and, if not altogether schooled in its niceties and etiquette (if his election campaign is anything to go by), certainly reliably pro-big business in a way that traditional fascism has not been. Even some of the more sober bourgeois commentators agree (J.P.P 2016).
But something does not need to be fascist to be bad. Something doesn’t even need to be fascist to be reactionary. I suspect that the reason many comrades throw this word around is as a synonymic shorthand for bad or reactionary. We should stop doing this, as it muddies the waters of our analysis. Something need not be fascist to be reactionary or even autocratically violent and right wing. The bourgeois and capitalism are perfectly capable of producing this in a myriad of forms. But it is important to to be able to differentiate between the forms and their causes. In doing so, we can learn how to best oppose them and what opposition from them we are likely to encounter at any given point.
With this in mind, it may help our analysis of what Trumpism represents to analyse the reasons behind his surprise election victory.
How did Trump win the election?
It could be contested as to whether Trump won the election at all. As we now know, he lost the popular vote by as much as 2%, or two million votes (Kentish 2016). This is not a massive margin when one considers that the number of adults (not necessarily eligible voters, however, which is a point we shall return to) in the US is 242,470,820 at the last estimate. In fact, one of the most striking aspects of this election has been how close it was in the popular vote, which is obviously then distorted through the American electoral college system to produce absolute majorities in the US brand of first-past-the-post.
Another striking aspect of the US election is the incredibly low level of voter turnout in many key Democrat heartlands. Of course, there were instances of voter suppression (Luscombe and Sidiqui 2016), which liberals have clung to as a reason for the defeat. However, whilst voter suppression must be combated, it alone cannot explain the massive changes in certain swing states.
Fundamentally, what seems to have lost the election for Clinton is not the initial story that was told by many analysts: Trump energising a mass movement of white blue-collar workers. Rather, the Democratic base did not turn out to vote for her. Forbes explains that in Wisconsin, Trump received exactly the same number of votes that Mitt Romney did in 2012. What lost the election for the Democrats there was that 230,000 Democrat supporters who had voted for Obama had not turned up to vote for Clinton (Ben-Shahar 2016).
This is important to note. As many on the Left pointed out – not all of whom would even self-identify as Marxists or revolutionaries – Clinton was an uninspiring candidate in all respects: representing nothing more than a continuation of the neoliberal status quo. She was unlikely to be able to motivate the working class to come out to vote for her. A more detailed analysis of the nature of her form of liberalism – and the radical covering of identity she received – is sadly beyond the scope of this article. But the voting statistics generally bear out that Clinton proved unable to motivate the working class and oppressed to vote for her.
This, in and of itself, is both unsurprising (as we asked above what did she offer them) and bears out a traditional Marxist analysis of how workers will ultimately respond to liberalism. It promises workers nothing: you cannot motivate them forever simply by trying to paint the other party as worse. After all, two liberal Obama administrations have not brought any serious advances in their situation when compared to the Bush administration. Workers recognise that there is not a qualitative difference between the two parties of the ruling class.
So what does Trump represent?
Firstly, a Trump victory is representative of a shift in the guiding ideology of the ruling class away from neoliberalism. That isn’t to say that this will benefit the working classes, but Trump’s promises of import tariffs, subsidies for industry and immigration controls are a move away from the previous epoch. Neoliberalism is premised upon relatively free movement of capital (and capital’s right to move labour around freely) combined with an ideological concession to many of the civil rights movements of the second half of the twentieth century: free-market economics combined with liberal ideas of progressiveness like politically correct language.
The contradiction between the supposedly progressive values espoused by people like the Blairites in Britain and the reality of their policies is a defining facet of neoliberal ideology. It is achieved by the separation of issues like racism, homophobia, national chauvinism, xenophobia and the degradation of working class communities from their material-structural causes: their transformation into simply ‘nasty ideas’. This allowed neoliberals to verbally masquerade as friends of oppressed groups whilst pursuing policies which were actively opposed to the interests of the oppressed (see, for example, David Cameron’s’ ‘hug a hoodie’ image vs. his policies of austerity or Tony Blair’s speeches about diversity whilst he conducted imperialist wars abroad).
To some extent, Trump represents the collapse of this contradiction. He will openly, without caveat, utilise racist reactionary language. His reactionary nature is open for all to see – so open, in fact, that it repulses even the neoliberals.
His policies are protectionist, nationalist and isolationist (to some extent). They are policies implacably opposed to neoliberalism’s move towards less and less regulation of the market. Instead, they recognise that these regulations exist to give American capital the edge over its foreign competition in this moment of crisis, and that import tariffs will allow American manufacturing to out-compete its rivals. At root, Trump’s ideas are the ideas of a ruling class who can no longer utilise neoliberalism to restore profitability. It’s a return to a capitalism reminiscent of the early 19th century.
How must we oppose Trump?
This brings us to the question of how we must oppose Trump. First and foremost, if Hillary’s campaign has taught us anything it’s that we can’t afford to oppose politicians like Trump by appealing to candidates of the liberal and neoliberal establishment. This will not wash with workers. At best, they will refuse to take part in the struggle under the leadership of these figures. At worst, some of them will be drawn into the camp of reaction.
We arrive at what might be termed the third party movement, or the third-party candidates movement. Of course, we should support the ending of two-party systems which in practice work as two wings of the same party of the ruling class. However, neither should communists accommodate ourselves to the likes of Jill Stein and Bernie Sanders and what could be described as their ‘anti-establishment liberalism’.
Instead, we must aim for a party built upon workers and the workers’ movement which espouses structural class politics. This is not ultra leftism: tactical alliances can be made. But above all else we must strive for the creation of an independent class force of the proletariat. The Greens are the party of radical liberalism and will move to the right under pressure. And Sanders demonstrated that he is more than capable of that during this election!
As Marxists we accept that the only independent revolutionary class in capitalist society is the proletariat. Above all else, our objective must be to ensure the independence of this class and its organisations from alien class influences. Those on the ground in the US will work out the detail of this programme, but it must be based upon these principles: the independence of the revolutionary proletarian party and the right of the party to put forward its own programme to the masses. This party must be unafraid to honestly convey its programme to the masses: calling for revolution and the overthrow of the system which puts reactionaries like Trump in power whilst struggling alongside workers and the oppressed to achieve the day-to-day demands of the anti-Trump movement.
Ben-Shahar, O. 2016. ‘The Non Voters Who Decided The Election. Trump Won Because Of Lower Democratic Turnout.’ http://www.forbes.com/sites/omribenshahar/2016/11/17/the-non-voters-who-decided-the-election-trump-won-because-of-lower-democratic-turnout/#3865000040a1
Kentish, B. 2016. ‘Donald Trump has lost the popular vote by a greater margin than any president in US history.’ http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/us-elections/donald-trump-lost-popular-vote-hillary-clinton-us-election-president-history-a7470116.html
Guerin, D. 1938. Fascism and Big Business. https://www.marxists.org/history/etol/writers/guerin/1938/10/fascism.htm
Luscombe, R. Siddiqui, S. 2016. ‘In North Carolina and Florida is the Trump voter suppression plan working?’ https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2016/nov/03/donald-trump-voter-suppression-campaign-north-carolina-florida
P.P.J. 2016. ‘Donald Trump Is Not A Fascist.’ http://www.economist.com/blogs/democracyinamerica/2016/05/trump-and-1930s
Trotsky, L. 1931. What Is Fascism. https://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1931/11/fascism.htm