Rethinking Revolution for an Age of Resurgent Fascism

By Atlee McFellin. Original version published by the Hampton Institute December 23rd, 2021 and Updated Here January 12th, 2022

Image by Tomislav Jakupec from Pixabay

The late sociologist Erik Olin Wright used the phrase “ruptural transformation” instead of revolution, inaccurately summarizing this as “Smash first, build second.”[1] His immensely popular and useful work also misrepresented or entirely erased any historical European approaches to revolution that differed from the caricature he presented. In the absence of an actual alternative, the next time we are faced with the threat of a quasi-constitutional fascist coup, one for which the January 6th insurrection was but a trial run, we will be similarly dependent on CIA talking points of “color revolution,” repeating critical mistakes made against the Nazis.[2]

To move beyond Wright’s misleading framework, one can, believe it or not, turn to the end of DSA-founder Michael Harrington’s last book, Socialism: Past and Future. Published in 1989, Harrington expanded upon his own earlier critique of the German Social Democratic party, specifically the electoral path to socialism, i.e. “social democracy” as strategy against Hitler.[3] Unfortunately, Harrington would ultimately look to a leading member of that same party as the basis for what he referred to as a “new middle class” on the march of “visionary gradualism.” That “new middle class” was not the “irreversible feature of the system” he thought it would be though. Despite his misplaced optimism, rather than an electoral path to socialism as social democracy, Harrington argued for the proliferation of “little republics” across the so-called USA, looking to Antonio Gramsci on a cross-class “historic bloc” and the Paris Commune of 1871.[4]

Despite his assertions of “gradualism,” this Paris Commune was catalyzed in defense against an outside force invading the city to restore the power of a monarch, a dictator supposedly ordained by god. The commune in Paris sprung from socialist clubs that had formed throughout the city, and where feminists had been building internal systems of mutual aid.[5] They learned from a similar experience during the decline and fall of the republic twenty years earlier. Marx referred to those socialist clubs in 1851 as “constituent assemblies” constituting a “proletarian commune” to sustain general strikes as a systemic alternative during that republic’s fall to dictatorship.[6]

As Marx put it, this was a commune “already formed which would take its place beside the official government” in a revolution as Martin Buber described in 1945, to “decentralize as many State functions as possible and choose those that must remain centralized into administrative functions, not, however, only after some post-revolutionary development lasting an indefinite time, but inside the revolutionary action itself.”[7] Back then though, the left remained dependent on electoral approaches until it was too late. Twenty years would pass before that dictator was overthrown and the Paris Commune of 1871 was born.

When it came to the German left against Hitler and the Nazis, Harrington criticized the myopia of socialism as social democracy, i.e. what Bernie Sanders practices today. Throughout Germany there were also autonomous councils in communities and workplaces, formed by people in both the socialist and communist parties who rejected orthodoxy in recognition of the threat posed by fascism. Though these councils were identical to the socialist clubs in France, they also looked to the successful 1917 revolution in Russia, similarly catalyzed in defense against violent forces who sought to restore the dictatorial power of a monarch.[8]

Against the Nazis and using the Russian word for council, this approach was best described as a “Soviet Congress for a Soviet Germany,” socialist clubs as dual power with inherent mutual aid to sustain general strikes as another republic declined and fell.[9] Harrington never wrote on this particular commune against Nazi fascism, but whether it is a little republic, soviet, assembly, council, socialist club, or union, they were all meant as systemic alternative, dual power in the midst of crisis.

But this is just European history. No matter how important it is to learn from these past struggles, our fight against resurgent fascism is taking place in the settler colony known as the USA. We can, however, compare these European movements to historical forms of Black abolitionist mutual aid, communes, and the solidarity economy along with contemporary queer, feminist, Indigenous forms of communal resistance.

Going back to at least 1780, Black communities in both the north and south pooled resources, financial and otherwise, democratically deciding how to sustain the movement for abolition, most often led by women. In some cases, this resulted in the formation of rural communes for raids on slave plantations. Over time and up to the first decades of the twentieth century, “mutual aid societies” spread across the country. These democratic organizations operated their own internal solidarity funds so members could support one another and from which the nation’s first Black church, first Black labor union, and first movement for Black reparations were born.[10] They were like European socialist clubs, but far more sophisticated.

This important yet still largely hidden history informed Ella Baker’s work running the Young Negroes’ Cooperative League from 1930-1933. As a chapter-based organization, each would first form a council made up of young Black leaders. These councils sought to identify what critical infrastructure was needed in the community to then learn enough about cooperative development and solidarity economics to turn those ideas into reality.[11] These lessons would have proved useful to the soviets against Nazi fascism and are especially relevant for us today. Importantly, many of YNCL’s chapters were located in the Jim Crow south. The YNCL practiced a socialist strategy meant to help communities survive conditions of racial segregation and white supremacist violence, conditions that inspired Hitler himself.[12]

Hitler was also inspired by the genocidal origins of the USA, the “cult of the covenant” at the core of our settler colonialism.[13] As such, Nazi fascism sought Lebensraum or “living space” in pursuit of their own version of the American Dream as “summons to empire” for war and holocaust.[14] Though fighting for bread and butter issues is imperative, especially in these times of profound crisis, the dream of universal middle classes masks a genocidal settler nightmare. The actual alternative to resurgent fascism is not a more inclusive settler colony, but the proliferation of communal societies like what has repeatedly emerged from within sites of climate disaster relief and Indigenous resistance like Standing Rock, i.e. “caretaking relations, not American dreaming.”[15]

Constant warnings of constitutional crisis mean that defeating fascism at the ballot box is essential, but also fundamentally insufficient, including whether one frames the cause as multi-racial democracy, democratic socialism, etc. The elections of 2022 and 2024 are paving the way for a quasi-constitutional fascist coup, so without our own systemic alternative as dual power rooted in mutual aid and the solidarity economy, including to sustain an uprising beyond so-called “color revolutions,” we will be dependent upon the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the military to supposedly “save democracy.”[16] Instead of repeating the mistakes made as other republics declined and fell, we have the chance to build an alternative as communes of resistance in process of formation from the midst of crisis.

  1. Erik Olin Wright, Envisioning Real Utopias, (New York: Verso Press, 2010). P. 303. ; Ibid, How to Be an Anti-Capitalist in the Twenty-First Century, (New York: Verso Press, 2019).
  2. For a summary of the liberal perspective, see: Frances Fox Piven, Deepak Bhargava, “What If Trump Won’t Leave?” The Intercept, August 11th, 2020. ; Jeffrey C. Isaac, “We Must Be Prepared to Nonviolently Defend a Democratic Election in the Streets,” Common Dreams, August 22, 2020. Their politics were most directly represented by Protect the Results from Stand Up America in the “Nobody is Above the Law” network and Choose Democracy. Unlike these organizations and their intellectual figureheads, military historian Andrew J. Bacevich was honest about the strategy when he said; “Down that path lies rule by military junta.” Andrew J. Bacevich, “The Military’s Role in a Contested Election,” The Nation, September 17th, 2020.
  3. Michael Harrington, The Twilight of Capitalism, (New York: Macmillan Press LTD, 1976). P. 208-215 ; Ibid, Socialism: Past and Future, (New York: Arcade Publishing, Inc., 1989). P. 53-59.
  4. Ibid, 275-277.
  5. Carolyn J. Eichner, Surmounting the Barricades, (Indiana: Indiana University Press, 2004). 24-26, 62-65, 84, 103, and 130.
  6. Karl Marx, Class Struggles in France 1848-1850, (New York: International Publishers, 2018). P. 83 and 98-99.
  7. Ibid, 99. ; Martin Buber, Paths in Utopia, (New York: Collier Books, 1988). P. 94-95.
  8. For an introduction to how the Italian and German left attempted to understand and fight against historical European fascism, here are two comprehensive starting points. David Beetham, “Introduction” in Marxists in the Face of Fascism, (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 1984). P. 1-81. ; David Renton, Fascism: History and Theory, (New York: Pluto Press, 2020).
  9. Clara Zetkin, “Fascism Must be Defeated,” in Clara Zetkin: Selected Writings, (New York: International Publishers, 1984). P. 175.
  10. Jessica Gordon Nembhard, Collective Courage: A History of African American Cooperative Economic Thought and Practice, (University Park, Pennsylvania State University Press, 2014). P. 27-47.
  11. Ibid, 112-125.
  12. Barbara Ransby, Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement, (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2003). P. 86-88. ; Isabel Wilkerson, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, (New York: Random House, 2020). 78-88.
  13. Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States, (Boston: Beacon Press, 2014). P. 45-51.
  14. Timothy Snyder, Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning, (New York: Tim Duggan Books, 2016). P. 13-14, 28, and 325.
  15. Marcella Gilbert, “A Lesson in Natural Law,” in Standing with Standing Rock: Voices from the #NoDAPL Movement, edited by Nick Estes and Jaskiran Dhillon. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2019). P. 281-289. ; Kim TallBear, “Caretaking Relations, Not American Dreaming,” Kalfou, Volume 6, Issue 1 (Spring 2019). P. 24-38.
  16. David H. Freedman, “Millions of Angry, Armed Americans Stand Ready to Seize Power If Trump Loses in 2024,” Newsweek Magazine, December 20th, 2021.; Paul D. Eaton, Antonio M. Taguba, and Steven M. Anderson, “Opinion: 3 retired generals: The military must prepare now for a 2024 insurrection,” The Washington Post, December 17th, 2021.

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