Books of the Month

In crisis, rulers will turn to fascism, but workers have power to win

December 25, 2023
Mass rally by Jersey City Mayor Frank Hague, Jan. 6, 1938. Hague’s cops barred unions, communists from the city, broke up union meetings. SWP leader James P. Cannon warned that Hague was “an incipient American fascist,” and a deadly danger to the working class.
Life/Margaret Bourke-WhiteMass rally by Jersey City Mayor Frank Hague, Jan. 6, 1938. Hague’s cops barred unions, communists from the city, broke up union meetings. SWP leader James P. Cannon warned that Hague was “an incipient American fascist,” and a deadly danger to the working class.

The wave of Jew-hatred that came on top of Hamas’ Oct. 7 pogrom against Jews in Israel poses a deadly danger both to Jews and to workers everywhere. Jew-hatred will be an indispensable weapon of any fascist movement the bosses unleash in the future. One picture of the real face of looming U.S. fascism comes from one of Pathfinder’s Books of the Month for December, Notebook of an Agitator by James P. Cannon, a founding leader of the Socialist Workers Party. Below are excerpts from his letters to the Militant March 15 and 29, 1954, on the topic of American reaction and the workers movement. Copyright © 1993 by Pathfinder Press. Reprinted by permission.


Those who would judge specific American forms of fascism too formalistically by the European pattern, arbitrarily limit capitalist aggression against the workers’ movement in two forms:

They see the democratic form by which the workers are suppressed through strictly legal measures in accordance with the law and the Constitution — such as the Taft-Hartley Law, formal indictments and prosecutions for specific violations of existing statutes, etc. All this, despite its obvious “inconvenience” to the workers’ movement, is characterized as democratic.

On the other side they see the illegal, unofficial forms of violence practiced by “storm troopers” and similar shirted hooligans outside the forms of law, as in Italy and Germany. This is characterized as fascist.

But what about violence which is technically illegal and unconstitutional, but carried out nevertheless by duly constituted officials clothed with legal authority? What about such things as the breaking up of meetings and picket lines by official police and special deputies; wire tapping; inquisitions; screening and blacklisting of “subversives;” and all the rest of the intimidation and terror of the witchhunt? These procedures don’t fit very well into the “democratic” formula, although their chief instruments are legally-constituted officials, supported and incited by press campaigns, radio demagogues, etc.

This kind of illegal violence under the outward forms of law has a distinctive American flavor; and it is especially favored by a section of the ruling class which has very little respect for its own laws, and cares more for practical action than for theories as to how it is to be carried out.

This is, in fact, an important element of the specific form which American fascism will take, as has already been indicated quite convincingly.

The depredations of Mayor [Frank] Hague, who announced that “I am the law,” were a manifestation of this tendency back in the late Thirties. [Leon] Trotsky, by the way, considered Hague an American fascist. He described his unconstitutional assaults on free speech and free assembly, through the medium of official police, as a manifestation of incipient American fascism. I think he was right about that. If the workers stand around and wait until the labor movement is attacked directly by unofficial shirted hooligans, before they recognize the approach of American fascism, they may find their organizations broken up “legally” while they are waiting.

The truth of the matter is that American fascism, in its own specific form, has already a considerable army of storm troopers at its disposal in the persons of lawless prosecuting attorneys and official policemen who don’t give a damn what the Constitution says. Incipient American fascism — already, right now — has a press and radio-television power which makes Hitler’s Angriff look like a throwaway sheet. It has political demagogues, like [Joseph] McCarthy, who are different from Hitler mainly in the fact that they are clothed with official legal powers and immunity, while Hitler had to build up an independent, unofficial and at times persecuted movement without any direct support from the established press, etc.

“McCarthy is different,” say the formalistic wiseacres, as if that were a help and a consolation. He is indeed different in several ways. But the most important difference is that he starts with a great power behind him, and operates with formal legal sanction and immunity. The right comparison to make is not of the McCarthy of today with Hitler on the verge of taking power in 1932, but rather with Hitler in the middle Twenties. The main difference we find in this comparison is that McCarthy is way ahead of Hitler. …

Neither is it correct to look now for the appearance of genuine American fascism in lunatic fringe outfits such as the Silver Shirts, Gerald Smith, etc. A powerful section of the American bourgeoisie, with unlimited means at their disposal are already fascist-minded; and they have a big foot in the Government, national and local. They feel no need at present of unofficial movements. …

It is far more correct, far more realistic, to see the incipient stage of American fascism in the conglomeration of “official” marauders represented by McCarthy than outside it.

*   *   *

The character of a party is not indicated by what it sees and points out but rather by what it does about it. To accuse the SWP of “sounding the alarm on the fascist danger in the U.S.” is only to pay to the Party the indirect and unintended compliment of saying that it calls for a struggle against the danger. …

To sound the alarm against the danger of fascism in the United States — and to state frankly that its victory is possible — is by no means to be taken as an admission that fascism is already in power, or close to it. Neither is it to be taken as a prophecy that fascism is destined to conquer eventually.

That will be decided in the struggle. The aim of our campaign is to “alarm” the labor movement to the reality of the danger and, from that, to the necessity of organizing the struggle on the right basis while there is yet time. The workers still have time to organize the counter-movement, but don’t have forever. …

Power is on the side of the workers, and all the chances of victory are in their favor. But they will never gain the victory without the most resolute struggle. The first prerequisite for that is an understanding of the irreconcilable nature of the struggle and what it’s all about. The fate of America, and thereby of all mankind — that’s what it’s all about.