The Solidarity Economy: anti-fascism at the intersection of Clara Zetkin and Ella Baker

By Atlee McFellin. As published by Punto Rojo Magazine January 27th, 2022.

This article is a continuation of a previous one titled “Rethinking Revolution for an Age of Resurgent Fascism.” Ella Baker’s work leading the Young Negroes’ Cooperative League (YNCL) from 1930-1933 is here used to further inform today’s anti-fascism. Overall, this article relates Baker’s work to the dissenting views of German Communist Party (KPD) co-founder Clara Zetkin, specifically her views on fascism and the systemic alternative she referred to as a “Soviet Congress for a Soviet Germany.” This was a federation of autonomous councils formed in neighborhoods and workplaces for mutual aid, self-defense, and as dual power to succeed in revolution through general strikes in the event of a Nazi coup.

Instead of German councils or “soviets,” this article argues that we need the equivalent of historical Black mutual aid societies in every workplace and neighborhood instead, but with a similar approach to revolution against resurgent fascism. Ella Baker’s method for building a solidarity economy through the YNCL’s local councils is then considered a model for how to form mutual aid societies everywhere, their overall role as anti-fascism, and toward our own version of a “Soviet Congress.” At the end, this article considers the Black Panther Party’s (BPP) July 1969 United Front Against Fascism conference and subsequent formation of National Committees to Combat Fascism as a model for expanding this approach nationwide.

These connections are established in hopes of offering a revolutionary path forward as the settler colony known as the United States of America faces a potential coup, quasi-constitutional or otherwise, at the hands of resurgent fascism.[1] We can catalyze a solidarity economy into a revolutionary system of dual power, anti-fascism as an emergent Congress at the intersection of Clara Zetkin and Ella Baker. Unlike Zetkin on the “Soviet Congress” from the halls of the German parliament a few short months before Hitler and the Nazis seized power though, we still have time. But that time is fleeting.

 

Avoiding the Mistakes of Historical German Anti-Fascism

After having been with the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) since 1889, Clara Zetkin left to found the German Communist Party (KPD) late 1918 with Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Liebknecht, and others. The SPD was the largest political party when the Weimar Republic was established after WWI. But support for the SPD steadily eroded as its electoral path to socialism as “social democracy” proved ineffective in stopping the rising fascist threat and insufficient in dealing with the depths of crisis.

Representing the KPD, Zetkin had also been a member of the Weimar Republic’s parliament from its beginning. By August 30th 1932, at the age of seventy five, she was also its oldest member and thus its Honorary President, which entitled her to address its first session after the July 1932 elections. These elections would witness the Nazis first succeeded in winning the most votes and at 37.3%, it was a larger percentage than they would ever receive again.[2]

Zetkin was going blind, terminally ill, and had to be smuggled into Berlin due to Nazi threats on her life. Turning to Philip Foner in his introduction to the 1984 book, Clara Zetkin: Selected Writings: “Her last public appearance was on the occasion of the opening of the Reichstag in which Hitler and the Nazis, with the aid of President Hindenburg, were attempting to assume control, although they were still in a minority.”[3] Just five months later, Hitler would be appointed chancellor in that same Reichstag, two more until it was set ablaze and, using this as excuse, the Nazis seized power.

Zetkin and others had been advocating a systemic alternative rooted in community and workplace councils since a revolutionary movement erupted following WWI. The SPD leadership refused to give up their privileged positions, supporting the Weimar Republic and seeking to crush any resistance instead, until it was too late. This is not suggest that the KPD was without its major flaws, including what Noam Chomsky referred to as its “Stalinist line,” one from which Zetkin dissented.[4]

As early as 1923, Zetkin argued against what she referred to as “the prevailing view” of fascism, that it “was nothing more than violent bourgeois terror.” She described it as emerging from a process of societal decay, what was, in her words, “the proletarianization of bourgeois layers” including the “very broad petty-bourgeois and middle-bourgeois masses,” i.e. from the death of middle classes and the overarching setter colonial order that brought them into existence.[5] She believed the Nazis had to bind together conflicting classes in order to attain and retain control, but she also incorrectly believed that the Nazis would prove “incapable of holding together even the different bourgeois currents with those whose silent and beneficent patronage it came to power.”

She was wrong about that, but right about what she feared from the beginning: “Fascism wanted to secure the power for social rebirth by seizing control of the state and utilizing its apparatus of power for its own ends.” The Nazi coup would not be complete until March 1933, but nearly ten years prior, she spoke of the need for a “liberating communism” to stop its rise. “We must not limit ourselves to struggle with and for the masses with our political and economic program,” she argued, but also with and for “the entire noble inner substance of communism as a world outlook.”[6] From the depths of crisis like we are experiencing today, half measures do not sufficiently inspire, they do not offer reason for the vulnerable feeling of hope, and they don’t get to the root of the problem.

Zetkin warned that remaining dependent on the supposed democratic institutions of the republic, as the SPD had done, “impugns the right of the masses to combat this suffering” that was widespread. In her words, fascism was a “decay that can be detected within the reformist Social Democracy, which both in theory and practice stands upon the rotten ground of the bourgeois social system.”[7] This “rotten ground” can be understood as the middle class American Dream and means of achieving it. Indeed, the actual alternative to resurgent fascism is not a more inclusive settler colony. That substance of a liberating communism is found in what has repeatedly emerged from sites of Indigenous resistance.

Zetkin argued against anti-fascist strategy that relied on supposedly expanding the middle class like Karl Kautsky, Eduard Bernstein, and the rest of the SPD advocated, including through the formation of cooperative businesses in the face of growing threats of a looming fascist seizure of power. Importantly, while also being critical of the SPD’s approach against the Nazis, for some reason DSA-founder Michael Harrington looked to Bernstein on the “new middle class” to inform his own electoral path to socialism, one that remains in practice through the dominant electoralist wing of Democratic Socialists of America today.[8] This approach is necessary but also fundamentally insufficient.

Zetkin was not an opponent of voting, electoral strategies, or public policies, i.e. reforms. She just also argued that the left’s strength was not “derived from the number of parliamentary seats,” but “anchored in its political, trade union and cultural organizations.”[9] Ultimately, this strength was to be found in the “Soviet Congress” as the coordinated capacity for revolution via neighborhood and workplace councils as a systemic alternative rooted in dual power against the threat of a Nazi coup. For the Congress, “a mass strike proves an effective weapon,” she argued, “provided that its usage is backed up by the determination and willingness to sacrifice of the masses who do not shrink from enlarging the battle and using force to repel the force used by the enemy.”[10]

Angela Davis wrote the “Forward” to Clara Zetkin: Selected Writings, summarizing what we would now refer to as her intersectional approach. Davis described this as “an objective interrelationship between racism and sexism” with regards to “the class struggle unfolding between monopoly capitalism and the working class.”[11] Indeed, the Congress was meant to be like a revolutionary rainbow coalition. Zetkin died less than a year after giving her speech to the rest of the German parliament, so she never articulated how the Congress was supposed to sustain itself, what Marxist feminist theorist Tithi Bhattacharya would refer to as its “social reproduction.”[12] For that, we turn to historical Black mutual aid societies and Ella Baker’s approach to the solidarity economy.

 

Black Mutual Aid Societies and Ella Baker’s Solidarity Economy

Born in Virginia, December 1903, Ella Baker was the National Director of the YNCL from 1930 to 1933. It was a small federation of local councils in a number of Black communities across the US. Its official success was minimal, closing its national office in NYC due to lack of funding within weeks of Zetkin’s speech in the German parliament, but its impact stretched far and wide.[13] According to Jessica Gordon Nembhard’s 2014 book, Collective Courage: A History of African American Cooperative Economic Thought and Practice, Baker looked back for inspiration to a rich history, yet one that still remains “obstructed by White supremacist violence.”[14] This history included “mutual-aid societies,” asserted here in place of the “soviets” that constituted Zetkin’s Congress. They are also meant inline with what the Jewish socialist philosopher Martin Buber referred to in 1946 as “the cell-substance of the new society.”[15]

Looking to Nembhard in Collective Courage, the purpose of these historical Black mutual aid societies “was to ‘provide people with the basic needs of everyday life – clothing, shelter, and emotional and physical sustenance.”[16] By “pooling their dues,” she wrote, these societies would accumulate money to collectively operate their own fund to provide for the needs of its members.[17] These societies, structurally speaking at least, were fundamentally different from most mutual aid efforts today.[18]

“A group of people who know each other through their neighborhood or church or other organization join an organization to provide a service or set of services. They agree to pay an initial fee to join and a weekly or monthly fee to keep the common fund operating. A specified portion is paid to any member who needs the service, whether he or she is sick and needs a doctor, hospitalization, and income while convalescing, or needs to be buried or needs food or clothing. Sometimes other members donate their services instead of, or in addition to, funds from the organization’s treasury.”[19]

Nembhard set out to “chronicle the myriad Black mutual-aid societies that sprang up during and after enslavement and examine their accomplishments, effectiveness, and the special role of African American women in founding and running them.”[20] These proliferated throughout Black communities in the US until the early 20th century and were more formalized versions of practices Nembhard documents back to at least 1780.

Before there were legally-incorporated mutual aid societies, these practices sustained “intentional communities and communes” to both “survive enslavement and poverty” as well as “organization for resistance and escape.” This often took the form of “maroon outlaw communes” that were, looking to historian John Curl, “bases for guerrilla raids on the slavers…wherever slavery spread.”[21] The Combahee River Colony, for example, namesake to the Combahee River Collective most know today for coining the phrase “identity politics,” was a women-led rural insurrectionary commune in South Carolina before and during the Civil War.[22] As Nembhard put it, therein quoting W. E. B. Du Bois, “the African American ‘spirit of revolt’ used cooperation in the form of insurrection to establish ‘widespread organization for the rescue of fugitive slaves.’”[23]

All these diverse undertakings were based upon a similar approach; the pooling of resources, financial and otherwise, with some form of democratic decision-making. From insurrectionary origins, mutual aid societies “in turn developed, in both the North and the South, into ‘various co-operative efforts towards economic emancipation and land buying,’ and those efforts led to cooperative businesses, building-and-loan associations, and trade unions.”[24] Indeed, they were each a “cell-substance” from which a great many amazing efforts emerged.

As an example, consider The Ex-Slave Mutual Relief, Bounty and Pension Association, a nationwide organization formed in Tennessee 1896. It fought for reparations and was, itself, a federation of mutual aid societies structured in the manner articulated above. As Nembhard noted, looking to Mary Frances Berry, it “was ‘essentially a poor people’s movement,’” self-funded and thus not bound by the trappings of what is referred to today as the non-profit industrial complex.[25] While the threat of a fascist coup continues to escalate, we can look to these historical Black mutual aid societies, how to emulate them in our existing work and as the basis of new organizational forms for our own Congress.

Turning to the YNCL, Baker helped each chapter organize itself into a council to coordinate the development of the local solidarity economy.[26] Though these councils were not mutual aid societies, Baker’s process to help each council’s formation, as well as what they undertook, could nonetheless prove vital for building our own systemic alternative for anti-fascism today. Baker helped young leaders from each Black community form a council where they would “discuss economic problems and learn cooperative economics before starting a business” that provided critical infrastructure.[27] Overall, each YNCL chapter more or less envisioned “a coalition of local cooperatives and buying clubs loosely affiliated in a network of councils.”[28] Today, the question is less about this or that particular business to provide critical infrastructure, cooperative or otherwise, but a broad system, including to prepare for the possibility of a fascist coup.

As historian Barbara Ransby wrote in her 2014 book, Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement, “Baker and her idealistic young comrades saw the building of cooperative economic institutions as the first step toward a peaceful transformation of society from capitalism to a more egalitarian, socialist alternative.”[29] She goes on to also point out that “African Americans had to initiate a transitional strategy toward socialism that made political sense within the confines of Jim Crow.”[30] This not only meant enduring threats and ongoing white supremacist violence, but settler colonial conditions that inspired Hitler in the first place.[31] Ransby also points out that they “rejected the strictures of a Soviet-style state or the centralized hierarchy of a Bolshevik-type vanguard party.”[32] This was not the same thing as the autonomous councils that formed Zetkin’s Congress though.

The Jim Crow South contained at least two relatively prominent examples of white supremacist coups that were also part of the history that Baker reflected upon. One was in Wilmington, North Carolina in 1898 and the other is most often referred to as the Tulsa Massacre of 1921.[33] As the late Glen Ford wrote before he passed away, the “White Settler Uprising at the Capitol” on January 6th was part of this much wider history of violence.[34] Now, we see that the insurrection was but a dress rehearsal for what is a potential future fascist coup, quasi-constitutional or otherwise. Instead of adopting strategies “that made political sense within the confines of Jim Crow,” we must transform them to ensure that resurgent fascism in this decaying settler colony doesn’t succeed in rapidly accelerating the most genocidal aspects of The New Jim Crow.[35]

 

Clara Zetkin, Ella Baker, and a United Front Against Fascism

To best ensure that the death cult known as the GOP doesn’t succeed, we should consider historical Black mutual aid societies as the “cell-substance” of a new Congress, formed in every workplace and neighborhood, guided by the spirit of Ella Baker and the solidarity economy as anti-fascism. Toward the proliferation of these councils, the Black Panther Party’s 1969 United Front Against Fascism conference stands out as a model. Though imperfect, it is something we should emulate, sooner rather than later and with greater revolutionary intent.

Drawing roughly 5,000 people and despite all the issues that occurred, this led to the formation of the National Committees to Combat Fascism for each community’s control over their local police. As the fascist-right builds its own movement to seize the settler republic through a coup on the path to 2024 and beyond, we need another united front. We need our own committees to combat fascism, one’s dedicated to building a solidarity economy for our movements, for community self-defense, and to sustain general strikes as this colony continues to decay.

Each council could be formed with the help of local leaders similar to the YNCL, while building out a broader membership like the BPP’s united front. Existing organizations of all shapes and sizes could also adopt the practices of historical Black mutual aid societies by starting their own strike, solidarity, or “mutual aid fund.” Like Baker and the YNCL, each council can collectively explore how to build the necessary infrastructure. Otherwise, we be will forced to endure arguments for a military-led “color revolution” like some advanced around the November 2020 elections out of concern that Trump might refuse to leave office. However, even this horrendous approach is now off the table.

As Zetkin urged from the halls of the German parliament in the months before the Nazis seized power: “All those who feel themselves threatened, all those who suffer and all those who long for liberation must belong to the United Front against fascism and its representatives in the government.”[36] And as the late Fred Hampton urged before his murder: “Nothing’s more important than stopping fascism, because fascism will stop us all.”[37]

 

  1. Laurence H. Tribe, “The risk of a coup in the next US election is greater now than it ever was under Trump,” The Guardian, January 3rd, 2021. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2022/jan/03/risk-us-coup-next-us-election-greater-than-under-trump
  2. Dan Simon, “Who Voted for Hitler?” The Nation, January 15th, 2021. https://www.thenation.com/article/politics/trump-hitler-nazi-fascism/
  3. Phillip S. Foner, “Introduction” in Clara Zetkin Selected Writings, (New York: International Publishers, 1984). P. 41.
  4. Noam Chomsky, “Biden vs. Trump,” Interviewed by Mehdi Hasan, The Intercept, April 15th, 2020. https://theintercept.com/2020/04/15/biden-trump-noam-chomsky-mehdi-hasan/
  5. The German middle class was helped into existence by its colonies in Africa. After WWI though, Germany lost those colonies. So Germany wasn’t a settler colony but its middle class was certainly brought into existence with the help of settler colonialism.
  6. Clara Zetkin, “The Struggle Against Fascism,” in Marxists.org Archive. https://www.marxists.org/archive/zetkin/1923/06/struggle-against-fascism.html & Mike Taber and John Riddell, eds., Fighting Fascism: How to Struggle and How to Win. (Haymarket Books, 2017).
  7. Clara Zetkin, “Fascism Must be Defeated,” in Clara Zetkin: Selected Writings, 171.
  8. Michael Harrington, Toward a Democratic Left, (New York: Pelican Books, 1968). P. 270; Michael Harrington, Socialism: Past and Future, (New York: Arcade Publishing, Inc., 1989). P. 251.
  9. Clara Zetkin, “Fascism Must be Defeated,” in Clara Zetkin: Selected Writings, 172.
  10. Ibid, 172-173.
  11. Angela Y. Davis, “Forward” to Clara Zetkin: Selected Writings, 15.
  12. Tithi Bhattacharya, “Introduction: Mapping social (re)production theory,” in Social Reproduction Theory: Remapping Class, Recentering Oppression, ed. Tithi Bhattacharya (London: Pluto Press, 2017), P. 2.
  13. Jessica Gordon Nembhard, Collective Courage: A History of African American Cooperative Economic Thought and Practice, (University Park, Pennsylvania State University Press, 2014). P. 112-125
  14. Ibid, 1.
  15. Martin Buber, Paths in Utopia, (New York: Collier Books, 1988). P. 88.
  16. Nembhard, Collective Courage, 43.
  17. Ibid, 31.
  18. Ibid, 43.
  19. Ibid, 42
  20. Ibid, 20.
  21. Ibid, 33. & John Curl, For All the People: Uncovering the Hidden History of Cooperation, Cooperative Movements, and Communalism in America, (CA: PM Press, 2009). P. 24.
  22. Nembhard, Collective Courage, 38-39.
  23. Ibid, 34.
  24. Ibid, 33.
  25. Ibid, 44-45.
  26. Ibid, 112-125.
  27. Ibid, 81.
  28. Ibid, 113.
  29. Barbara Ransby, Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement, (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2003). P. 86.
  30. Ibid, 88.
  31. Isabel Wilkerson, “What the Nazis Learned from Jim Crow,” Interview by Amy Goodman, Democracy Now, August 12th, 2020. https://www.democracynow.org/2020/8/12/caste_isabel_wilkerson ; Isabel Wilkerson, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, (New York: Random House, 2020). 78-88. ; Timothy Snyder, Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning, (New York: Tim Duggan Books, 2016). P. 13-14, 28, and 325.
  32. Barbara Ransby, Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement, 87.
  33. Too Black, “From Black Wall Street to Black Capitalism,” Hood Communist, June 3rd, 2021. https://hoodcommunist.org/2021/06/03/from-black-wall-street-to-black-capitalism/ ; Lynn Parramore, “America Hasn’t Reckoned with the Coup That Blasted the Black Middle Class,” Institute for New Economic Thinking, April 29th, 2021. https://www.ineteconomics.org/perspectives/blog/america-hasnt-reckoned-with-the-coup-that-blasted-the-black-middle-class
  34. Glen Ford, “White Settler Uprising at the Capitol,” Black Agenda Report, January 14th, 2021. https://blackagendareport.com/white-settler-uprising-capitol
  35. Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, (New York: The New Press, 2020.
  36. Clara Zetkin, “Fascism Must be Defeated,” in Clara Zetkin: Selected Writings, 174.
  37. Fred Hampton in The Assassination of Fred Hampton, Jeffrey Haas interviewed by Juan Gonzalez in Democracy Now, December 4th, 2021. https://www.democracynow.org/2014/12/4/watch_the_assassination_of_fred_hampton

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