Defining Fascism: W.E.B. Du Bois vs. the Anti-Trump Consensus

by Jeremiah Kim.

On the morning after January 6, much of America awoke believing it had just lived through a fascist coup; a white mob, incited by a would-be dictator, had ransacked the Capitol and attacked the pillars of democracy. The newspaper headlines were stark and grim, and confirmed our worst fears. “Appeasement Got Us Where We Are”, read an opinion column by The New York Times’ Paul Krugman – evoking the disastrous appeasement of Adolf Hitler by the Allied powers. On January 8, New York magazine ran an exposé, “Senior Trump Official: We Were Wrong, He’s a ‘Fascist’”. Celebrated historian Eric Foner reminded America that the Trump presidency, marked by its “glorification of armed neo-fascist groups,” had revealed the true colors of the inherent danger within our troubled democracy. “I’ve Hesitated to Call Donald Trump a Fascist. Until Now,” announced Columbia University’s Robert O. Paxton, an academic specializing in the history of fascism.

In moments of profound crisis, it becomes necessary to look back at the past to accurately define the present and chart a course to the future. But here we must admit we start at a disadvantage. What gives momentum to the media’s breathless reports about “fascism coming home” is the fact that, as Americans, our conceptions of fascism primarily come from Hollywood movies, which are crafted to thrill and sell rather than inform, and from the education system, which most Americans – on all sides of the political spectrum – already judge to be seriously flawed. We are in dire need of the perspective of a scholar and revolutionary like W.E.B. Du Bois, one of the twentieth century’s greatest thinkers who pioneered new knowledge of race, social science, U.S. and world history, civilization, democracy, communism, and – finally – fascism.

In stark contrast to liberal definitions of fascism which fixate obsessively on the personalities of demagogues and the threatening yet vague labels of “dictatorship” or “authoritarianism”, Du Bois assessed fascism scientifically and in the context of world-historic movements. He first saw fascism as a reaction to the world communist movement, as an experiment condoned by other Western powers for offering a potential solution to the crisis of capitalism that could repudiate the path of the Soviet Union. Du Bois then defined fascism as the merging of the state with the most advanced sections of the capitalist class. This new state, dominated by a small clique of monopolists, financiers, and warmakers, centralized all economic planning for its own benefit rather than for the benefit of the worker.

Bearing this definition of fascism in mind, how should we interpret the liberal hysteria over an impending fascist threat from Donald Trump and his supporters? If we adopt the media’s simplistic definition of fascism as “right-wing populism”, then we are prevented from actually identifying fascism in our time as Du Bois saw it in his – as a particular formation of state and corporate power, driven by certain elements of the ruling class. Ultimately, a serious study of Du Bois yields the disconcerting truth: that in one of the great and bitter ironies of history, the United States today is actually marching further toward fascism in the name of defeating fascists.

What Du Bois Saw in Nazi Germany

Du Bois visited Germany multiple times over the course of his life, from 1892 when he came to Berlin as a graduate student, to 1936 when he toured the newly founded Third German Reich ruled by the Nazi Party. His latter descriptions and analysis of Nazi Germany, included in works like Color and Democracy and the unpublished Russia and America, provide unique insights into the true nature of fascism from the viewpoint of the black worker in America.

Du Bois in the office of the Crisis.

Central to Du Bois’ interpretation of the rise of fascism was his understanding of the crisis of capitalism and Western civilization, evidenced by two world wars and the Great Depression, both tied to the degradation of the darker majority of humanity through colonial imperialism. For its part, “Germany reeled under five blows, [from] 1914 to 1933, which no people can experience and remain entirely normal. These were: War, the Treaty of Versailles, Inflation, Depression, and Revolution.” The calamity of World War I and the ensuing impoverishment of Germany at the hands of victorious Britain and France created a situation ripe for dramatic transformation. “Revolution was staring Germany in the face,” wrote Du Bois, and the next logical step was a socialistic state akin to the Soviet Union, in which production would be planned for the uplift of common workers. This prospect “scared the industrial owners and leaders of Germany to death and threw the country headlong into the arms of Hitler. Hitler, swinging from the worker as an object of planning to a powerful Germany as a greater object, soon interpreted Germany as representing the industrialists, the Junkers, and Hitler’s own compact party. Out of this he welded National Socialism and regimented Germany into a planned economy for the benefit of capital and political oligarchy.”

Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union are often equated in the popular imagination as totalitarian regimes ruled by despots. But Du Bois looked at the two countries from an altogether different perspective. He described Germany as a socialistic state that was “copying the Soviet Union in innumerable ways: its ownership and control of industry; its control of money and banking; its steps toward land ownership and control by government; its ordering of work and wages; its building of roads and homes; its youth movement; its one-party slate at elections.” Du Bois did not fear the existence of a planned state; instead, he asked the all-important question: For whom is the state planned – the capitalist or the worker? It was on this question that Germany and Russia fundamentally differed: “While the [German] state controlled industry, the state itself was controlled by a clique.” In this clique was not only Hitler’s infamous cabinet of militarists, but also the “Circle of Friends” – Germany’s top industrialists and banks, along with representatives of Wall Street and U.S. multinationals like Standard Oil and General Electric. In Germany, “There was no suggestion of democratic control of the state…the system of education was curtailed, rather than enlarged, and aimed increasingly at service to industry.” This contrasted with the Soviet Union, where Du Bois saw a worker’s state founded upon mass political participation starting at the elemental unit of the village Soviet, and a rapidly expanding education system that improved literacy at an unprecedented scale. Meanwhile, Germany, seeking to recoup its losses, dreamed of conquering and colonizing the Soviet Union.

Finally, Du Bois assessed the attitude of the West toward fascism: “At first, Europe and America applauded Mussolini and Hitler on their states. Industry saw in them an answer to Communism. Then doubt [intruded]. If these dictators continued to control industry, how would industry emerge and with how much autonomy?” Though initially enamored with fascism, the broader sections of Western industry which produced goods became wary of being forced to bend before a tiny clique of finance capital and political/economic oligarchy. Thus fascism was seen as a threat to the existing order of “anarchy of individual initiative”, even though that initiative was already being centralized under the control of large conglomerates and monopolies. With the defeat of the Axis Powers, fascism was lodged in the memory of the American people as a frightening yet little understood anomaly. In the minds of the ruling elite of an ascendant U.S. superpower, however, the Nazi regime was registered as a failed yet worthwhile experiment.

Fascism Today: The New Consensus and the Battle of Ideas

Is Donald Trump a fascist? For many, this question has passed beyond debate. However, if we follow the logic of Du Bois, then the answer is no. The facts are plain to judge. Today, the most advanced sections of the ruling class can be found among the forces pushing for a “Great Reset” to secure the future of world capitalism and imperialism: high finance, Big Tech, and the military-industrial complex. Trump may be a businessman and proud capitalist, but he does not represent these forces; that distinction belongs to Joe Biden, Kamala Harris, and the Democratic Party. The World Economic Forum, unveiling its agenda for the Great Reset last year, promoted Biden as a necessary lynchpin for a planned global economy that will further the immiseration and obsolescence of technologically backward workers. Although the nation’s biggest banks saw record profits under Trump, they unanimously chose Biden as their preferred presidential candidate. The upper echelon of the military and national security state also backed Biden, seeking to reverse the process of U.S. military and imperial retreat which Trump embodied. Biden’s cabinet itself is a perfect picture of the revolving door of Washington, where members of the ruling elite cycle endlessly between government, consulting firms, defense companies, tech giants, and other multinationals. Lastly, Big Tech proved particularly audacious in not only censoring the sitting U.S. president, but also shaping the very narrative of Trump’s presidency, the 2020 election, and its aftermath. This final point is worthy of further consideration, for it takes the question of fascism into new territory, beyond what Adolf Hitler could have ever dreamed.

Fascism in Germany was ultimately organized by and for a small ruling clique; yet the Nazis would not have been able to seize power and maintain it without the support of the majority of the German people. It was here that Du Bois saw the immense importance of propaganda: “To secure such a government, and keep it in power, it is only necessary for the mass of the people firmly to believe that the thing works; that the Nazi state is doing what it promised and nearing its goal. Part of the work of a community or government is too subtle to be easily seen or measured. It is here that Propaganda comes in. The greatest single invention of World War I was propaganda: the systematic distortion of the truth, for the purpose of making large numbers of people believe anything authority wishes them to believe, grew into an art, if not a science.”

The tech giants of today represent a huge leap forward in the science of propaganda. Having monopolized the information, speech, and interactions of billions of people online, Big Tech firms simultaneously operate in close coordination with the state and as their own de facto branch of government. Moreover, by accelerating a business model in which the average user is no longer a customer, but a product whose attention, desires, and actions are manipulated and sold, companies like Facebook, Amazon, Google, Apple, and Twitter have become multi-trillion dollar laboratories for modifying human thought and behavior at a global scale. In combination, these factors make Silicon Valley perhaps the most powerful purveyor of propaganda in history. With such propaganda, it becomes possible for the advanced sections of the ruling elite to drastically centralize power in a way that comforts and reassures people, rather than alarms them; it becomes possible to engineer social movements, weaponizing NGOs and PR campaigns to make young people serve the interests of finance; and it becomes possible to execute a merciless coup of wealth, production, and authority while propping up the false threat of a looming authoritarian takeover by Trump.

The deluge of discourse about Trump and fascism has been incredibly effective at obscuring the real presence of fascism in American society. Long before Trump came into office, America met the essential characteristics of a fascist state according to Du Bois – with its financial oligarchy, fusion of corporate and state power, and military empire waging endless wars against the darker peoples of the world. Trump and his movement represented a contradiction to this system, both ideologically and materially. To crush this visible contradiction and further consolidate power, the ruling elite have deployed their greatest weapon: the ability to control ideas. The result has been the anti-Trump movement, which today is rapidly evolving into a new domestic war on terror.

As Du Bois observed, ideological control, white supremacy, and a secret police state were essential to the Nazi regime. The same may be said of the anti-Trump movement. In public and in private, the intelligence apparatus of the US state coalesced to undermine Trump’s presidency. With the CIA and other intelligence agencies operating opaquely in the background, the anti-Trump movement has built an impressive coalition, one in which multinational corporations and self-proclaimed anarchists could unite around a common goal of defeating Trump. Under the belief that the country stands at the brink of fascism, liberal America has applauded Big Tech’s recent crackdown on the president’s social media accounts, on tens of thousands of ordinary users, and on alternative social media platforms where Trump’s base could conceivably plot further insurrection. Fascists shouldn’t have free speech, is the common consensus. And as Joe Biden forges ahead with his vision of restoring US hegemony over the world, a chasm continues to widen between two very different Americas. One America is composed of pure, superior folk: college-educated liberals and tech-savvy elites waving flags of diversity and social justice. The other is composed of poor and backward peoples: white deplorables and racial minorities who refuse to vote blue. Beneath mountains of propaganda, the fault lines of white supremacy in America are steadily moving to encircle this other America and mark it for damnation.

It is here that the crisis of the current American left bears some historical parallel to the disunity and failure of Germany’s Social-Democrats and Communists, which paved the way for Hitler. “Had the German workers had a different training and leadership,” Du Bois insisted, “Germany would have become Communist.” However, the difference lies in the fact that the vast majority of the discernible American left has not only capitulated to the ruling class, but acts as the vanguard of the new fascism. They have done this by engaging in the most aggressive forms of cancel culture, putting McCarthyism to shame through ceaseless “ground-up” crusades of intimidation and suppression. They have done this by promoting riots and looting in communities already decimated by gentrification, lockdowns, and unemployment. And they have done this, ironically, by robbing the term “fascist” of any honest political meaning and turning it into a derogatory slur for backward white Trump supporters or any person who is remotely critical of the establishment’s anti-Trump dogma. These actions work to crush genuine dissent and impose even narrower parameters of ideological conformity upon America.

If a new movement for people’s democracy is going to emerge, it will be closer to the unfiltered, working-class anger against elites seen in Trump’s base than to the elite-sanctioned protests of the anti-Trump movement. But it will also need to go beyond this: reaching back to ground itself in figures like W.E.B. Du Bois and in the freedom struggles of the past; and reaching forward to confront new configurations of technological supremacy while building hard-fought unity between groups long divided by color. The hour is late for open, principled discussion, debate, and exchange – what Fidel Castro called the Battle of Ideas. Who are the true fascists today? Which social forces stand at the forefront of whiteness? On which principles should different sections of American society unite? These are questions that, for too long, have been left to a tiny faction of the ruling class to dictate. But they are questions that ultimately belong to the broad masses of humanity to decide.

2 Comments

  1. “With such propaganda, it becomes possible for the advanced sections of the ruling elite to drastically centralize power in a way that comforts and reassures people, rather than alarms them; it becomes possible to engineer social movements, weaponizing NGOs and PR campaigns to make young people serve the interests of finance; and it becomes possible to execute a merciless coup of wealth, production, and authority while propping up the false threat of a looming authoritarian takeover…”

    You could say the exact same thing about the Tea Party. Do you recognize the fundamental split that exists within the capitalist class between the fossil fuel energy concerns, weapon manufacturers, and other elements of industry in the central part of the USA as opposed to the Wall Street/Silicon Valley/Big Pharma axis?

    Liked by 1 person

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