A few years ago a dear friend expressed his concern about what he perceived as a dangerous political and cultural turn to the right. “The Alternative Right, the men’s rights activists, the Dark Enlightenment. All of these fascists are organizing and trying to build power. It scares me.” In some arrogant attempt to posture as very serious, I scoffed at these reactionaries as “wingnuts confined to the internet,” with no significance in “the real world.” I was wrong.
We are experiencing a frightening and drastic rightward shift in the overall political climate, not only in the United States, but also throughout Europe and Asia as well. The 2016 presidential election and the events surrounding it have empowered and emboldened all of these tendencies and more. Formerly marginal sectors of the Far Right have stepped into the light of mainstream US politics. They have helped to build neo-fascist movements and elect a bullying right-wing populist to one of the most powerful positions in the world. From Trump, to Brexit, to LePen, to the Islamic State, to the Bharatiya Janata Party, the Far Right is on the move. They are attempting to organize for and to brutally impose their hierarchical and inegalitarian visions on society. I have since apologized to my friend.
I don’t, however, think that my opinion was especially unique. Rather, I expressed a common view among folks on the radical Left. I argued for years that while fascists and the Far Right should certainly be opposed, they represented a far smaller threat to the lives and well-being of people of color than did the police, the prison system, and other institutions of official society. I am by no means the only one who held this position. Nor was I completely wrong. However, my complacency was sorely misplaced. It was, consciously or not, rooted in a view that saw social relations as stable and which failed to comprehend the total social, political, economic, and ecological crisis that we inhabit.
In this moment, those of us who seek to build a free and just world would do well to study our enemies and understand their politics, strategies, and history. Two recent books attempt to examine the history and politics of the insurgent Far Right: Alexander Reid Ross’s Against the Fascist Creep from AK Press and the anthology Ctrl-Alt Delete published by Kersplebedeb.
Clocking in at almost 400 pages Reid Ross’s tome is by far the more ambitious project. Against the Fascist Creep is an attempt to tell the history of insurgent fascist politics and their complicated relationship with the Far Left.
Throughout his book Reid Ross focuses more on the ideology of fascism as a revolutionary movement than on the operations and policies of fascism in power. Reid Ross starts by looking at populist tendencies of North American “Manifest Destiny” and the emergence of anti-elitist ideologies that remain deeply racist and authoritarian. From these roots, he looks at the explosion of radical and militant right-wing politics following the First World War. In the wake of that catastrophe, Europeans developed ideologies and built movements to make sense of a chaotic and unjust world and to change it. Anarchists and Marxists led revolutions and rebellions across the continent. In opposition to, but also sometimes influenced and inspired by these left-wing ideologies, more authoritarian and nationalist politics emerged; from “national syndicalism” to Italian Fascism, to German National Socialism. Amidst the chaos of power structures crumbling, radical movements splitting, and struggles over power and principles, fascism emerged in opposition to both the exploitation of capitalist modernity and the universalism of Marxist communism.
Following a lengthy engagement with the life and thought of fascist occultist Julius Evola, Reid Ross discusses the emergence of the European New Right (ENR) in the 1960s. Fueled by resentment in the face of decolonization, the ENR attempted to rebuild insurgent right-wing politics to fit the postwar reality. Drawing on the work of Italian communist (and anti-fascist) Antonio Gramsci, these activists and intellectuals prioritized cultural transformation in the place of an immediate struggle for political power. They also tended to minimize explicit biological racism, in favor of a less alienating stress on cultural integrity and self-determination. Finally, while initially reacting against decolonization, they appropriated the revolutionary politics of their time, positioning themselves as radicals fighting for the liberation and self-determination of European people against the imperialism of US capitalism and Soviet state socialism. Reid Ross goes on to discuss various other Far-Right and fascist movements: Nazi skinheads from London, England to Portland, Oregon; National Bolshevism and radical nationalisms in Russia and the Ukraine; and now, the Alt-Right which helped sweep Donald Trump into power.
Reid Ross’s book is important in that it touches on some significant yet often under-examined aspects of fascism. Instead of seeing Right and Left as simplistic opposites, he is willing to think about them inhabiting a more complex relationship. While Marxist and anarchist leftists have generally understood fascism to be the most authoritarian and violent form of capitalist rule, Reid Ross takes seriously fascism’s radical, even revolutionary, opposition to capitalist modernity. From “national syndicalists” active following the First World War to “Nazi Maoists” in the 1960s, the author conveys how complicated and confusing this political terrain is.
The line between Left and Right, between communist and fascist, is often far from clear, leaving us with the difficult work of clarifying our own values and politics. The distinction between Right and Left is not always obvious. Throughout history the record has been complicated. From Bakunin to Mussolini and from Stalin to Metzger, insurgent anti-imperialism has intermingled with vitriolic anti-Semitism and racism on both the “Right” and “Left.” The Far Right is both our competitor in this period of social crisis and a danger that can destroy the liberatory potential of our own movements from within if we fail to clearly draw political lines that distinguish our radicalism from theirs.
Unfortunately, Against the Fascist Creep, while hinting at important insights and essential questions, often fails to live up to its promise.
Reid Ross’s attempt to understand fascism as a process is useful in helping us avoid dogmatic attachment to fixed definitions. However, he does tend to define every social, political, cultural, or spiritual trend he doesn’t like as being fascist, or at least tainted by it. In a denunciatory tour of the impurities of the political spectrum, Reid Ross attacks everyone from Deep Ecologists to class struggle anarchists, accusing them of enabling the right, sometimes citing evidence and sometimes not. In identifying a “fascist creep,” he is too quick to resort to a casual guilt-by-association in a constant search for enemies, mistaking a moralist purity for the kind of political clarity we need to fight and win.
The danger of a “fascist creep” influencing and poisoning both society as a whole and our left-wing movements is very real. From casual anti-Semitism to macho fetishization of violence, the Left too often shares values and politics with the radical Right. This must be resisted and opposed, but doing so requires real humility, self-criticism, and a commitment to political clarity that cheap self-righteousness cannot provide. A real examination of the “fascist creep” would involve something more than a hunt for enemy infiltrators in our otherwise good movements; it would require confrontation and struggle with our own limitations and weaknesses.
Too often throughout the text, Reid Ross fails to engage fascist politics as deeply as he could, opting rather to denounce and ridicule them. If we could defeat fascism by proclaiming our own superiority, this practice would serve us well. But real politics is not just about being right; it’s about winning. We need to develop the resources and forces to defeat fascists in the streets. Books should help us understand our enemies, what they think, and how, and why. Moralistic posturing, while it may feel good for both author and reader, doesn’t really help. The purpose of political analysis is not to distinguish between “good guys” and “bad guys” like a ten-year-old watching Star Wars. Instead, we need the nuance and sophistication to actually understand the complexities of our world, our movements and our enemies in order to be able to successfully fight and win.
Finally, the writing itself is poor and confusing. Sometimes this is a result of needlessly academic big words. At other points it’s just sloppily crafted paragraphs, which change the subject without transitions. At its worst Against the Fascist Creep feels like 400 pages of name-dropping, the author simply referencing all of the obscure thinkers and projects he knows of, strung together with convoluted prose.
In contrast to Reid Ross’s meandering volume, the collection Ctrl-Alt-Delete, published by Kersplebedeb, is quick, clear, and to the point. At fewer than 125 pages, this book pulls together some useful and timely documents, which reflect on the political moment of Trumpism and the insurgent movements he rode to power.
The collection begins with the title essay by longtime anti-fascist researcher and writer Matthew Lyons. “Ctrl-Alt-Delete” is a fifty-page report in which he seeks to familiarize the reader with the history and ideology of the “Alt-Right.” Beginning with its roots in both old school “paleoconservatism” and the European New Right, Lyons explains how intellectuals like Richard Spencer built a political milieu by synthesizing different strains of right-wing nationalism and internet culture. He then goes on to examine some of the different tendencies within the Alt-Right.
White nationalism and racism have been core to this political project with its hip rebranding of neo-Nazism, white supremacy, and anti-Semitism. Lyons, however also discusses the gender politics of the Alt-Right, pointing to its roots in and connections with the online culture of anti-feminist backlash, from “Gamergate” to “pick-up artists.” Also, significant in this regard is the “male tribalism” of Jack Donovan and the Wolves of Vinland, who seek to establish male supremacist resilient communities autonomous from multicultural capitalist modernity. Other forces include right-wing anarchists who seek to resist state authority in favor of decentralized “tribalism,” and “neoreaction,” an ideology spawned from tech CEOs seeking philosophical justifications for their fantasies of corporate feudalism.
Finally, Lyons examines the relationship between the Alt-Right and Donald Trump. Many sought to use the Trump campaign as an opportunity to push their politics within a broader arena, and their interventions injected new levels of violence and cruelty into American electoral politics. Lyons’ report is concise, clear, and extremely useful in giving a rundown of who the Alt-Right are, where they come from, what they believe, and what their role is in this historical moment. I suspect that this report will stand as the go-to on the subject for some time, and Lyons’ forthcoming book Insurgent Supremacists will likewise be necessary reading.
“The Rich Kids of Fascism” by It’s Going Down is another attempt to analyze the Alt-Right. The focus here is on the class character of the movement. They argue that unlike other forms of fascist and right-wing politics, the Alt-Right is a class-elitist movement. They also point to the weaknesses of the Alt-Right as being an internet phenomenon without any demonstrated ability to fight for its politics in the streets. While this may well have been true at the time the piece was written, that certainly seems to be changing, and the fact that anti-fascist forces have been losing street fights over the last couple years should humble us. Overall, while the piece has some useful and interesting points, there is a definite tendency toward triumphalism, and self-righteous posturing. The macho chest-thumping of “we ain’t afraid of no memes” may feel good and may psych us up as we get ready to hit the streets, but it doesn’t actually help us make sense of the world or the enemies by whom we have too often been defeated.
K. Kersplebedeb’s “Black Genocide and the Alt-Right” looks at the racial politics of the Alt-Right and argues that, though it has been less addressed than its sexism or anti-Semitism, anti-Blackness is at the core of the movement’s politics. That’s a good point, but the article is too short. In a historical moment when we are witnessing the emergence both of militant fascist and Black Liberation movements, the relationship of these phenomena is of the utmost importance for radicals. Kersplebedeb is right to point out the antagonism, but unfortunately does little more.
Finally, Bromma’s “Notes on Trump” is an attempt to understand the 2016 election in the broader historical context, viewing Trump’s victory as a response to capitalist crisis and a rejection of neoliberal globalization and neocolonial multiculturalism in favor of right-wing nationalism. Following real victories by anti-racist and anti-colonial liberation moments, capitalism shifted and made space for figures and forces from the African National Congress in South Africa to Barack Obama in the United States to step forward and administer global exploitation. Bromma suggests that we are currently seeing the repudiation of such “progressive” rainbow imperialism. Instead we are now faced with more open white supremacy and a chaotic and violent world situation.
We are in a period of crisis and upsurge where political categories are being rapidly undone and remade. The labels and genealogies that folks claim may matter much less than the content of their politics and what their practice looks like. Distinctions between anarchism and Marxism may matter far less than one’s concrete commitment to building antiauthoritarian political culture or rooting one’s politics in working class life. At this juncture of fear, confusion, crisis, and opportunity, it is unclear where new political forces will emerge. But if the history Reid Ross presents teaches us anything, it is that we must be on our guard and take great care in seeking political clarity. In this chaotic “marketplace of ideas” (particularly in the internet age), where every tendency from Democratic Confederalism to Marxism-Leninism-Maoism to Pan-Secessionism to National Bolshevism is on offer, the next fascist threat, the next praxis of terror and extermination, can appear from anywhere, from our enemies’ midst or from our own.
The Trump administration and the Alt-Right are shifting and shattering official politics with its lies of progress, multiculturalism, and civility. Stability and peace are not on the table, but transformation is certainly on the horizon. Both Reid Ross’s and Lyons’ interventions are important reminders that the Left are not the only ones who can benefit from instability, and that the transformations ahead are as likely to be full of horror as they are to lead us to freedom.
rowan lives in Portland, Oregon. They are the parent of a three-year-old who thinks that “singing protests” are “a little bit fun” but “fire protests” are “too scary.”
This review is from Perspectives on Anarchist Theory‘s “Beyond the Crisis” issue, available here from AK Press: https://www.akpress.org/perspectivesonanarchisttheorymagazine.html