Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

February 10, 2021

Paul Street, Antonio Gramsci, and understanding fascism

Filed under: Fascism — louisproyect @ 10:07 pm
Paul Street

At nearly 4,500 words, Paul Street’s article titled “The Anatomy of Fascism Denial” is just the first half of a polemic against those on the left who do not share his analysis that Trump was an imminent fascist threat.

This is part of a campaign he has been waging for the better part of four years. It started off harmlessly enough by focusing on Trump’s bad behavior. Yes, he wasn’t breaking any new ground but at least his heart was in the right place. It was only in the last year that our intrepid radical journalist’s campaign began to take on an obsessive character. Like Noam Chomsky and other “lesser evil” voices, Street began to make voting for Biden a sine qua non for the left. I never paid much attention to his daily blizzard of FB posts defending this position until one showed up that was obviously an attack on me. My support for Howie Hawkins had gotten under his skin to such a degree that he flamed me as an effete, well-off yuppie who was helping to elect someone as bad as Hitler, or maybe even worse.

Reading through his article, I noticed a reference once again either to me or perhaps his confused notion of what I stand for:

Mid-way through the Trump years, it dawned on me that many of the older and upper-middle -class white former New Left (now “old new left”) fascism-denying thinkers I knew wouldn’t be willing to see fascism as a problem in the U.S. until paramilitaries came to their comfortable homes and dragged them off to detention camps. Among the affluent Caucasian males who predominate among Trumpism-fascism-deniers (this is no accident given how their race, class, and gender-privilege insulated them from the worst outcomes of the Trump regime), it has been common to advance an idiotic all-or-nothing black and white litmus test for fascism: either [A] a triumphant consolidated fascist regime on the maximal model of Mussolini’s Italy or Hitler’s Third Reich or [B] “no fascism.” Serious contemporary analysts of neofascism are working instead with a more reasonably nuanced attention to gray areas, “fascist creep” (“creeping fascism,” if one prefers), and fascist movements in the neoliberal era.

Suffice it to say that I was never part of the New Left. When I joined the Trotskyist movement in 1967, it was a conscious decision to become an apprentice to people like Farrell Dobbs and Joe Hansen who learned their Marxism from Leon Trotsky. Really, who in their right mind would rather line up with Tom Hayden than Trotsky? It was like picking Kenny G. over John Coltrane.

If you scan through all the names of the people Street wants to crucify, not a single one has ever written for New Left Review or even Jacobin. The name Marx only appears once and not as someone whose writings would have some bearing on the question of fascism.

Hitler’s brown-shirts didn’t run around smashing heads and killing people chanting “Let’s Build a Corporate State with a State Command Capitalist Political Economy!” They went about beating up and murdering Marxists and Jews, two threats they merged in the phrase “judeo-bolshevism.” They were very much about white nationalism.

For Street and others like him, you can have constitutional rights such freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, a secret ballot in a multi-party state and other gains won over centuries of struggle by working people and still end up living under fascism—or more exactly as is de rigeuer in his circles—neo-fascism. By sticking on the prefix ‘neo’, everything is possible.

Those of us who saw and see Trump and Trumpism as fascist never posited or expected an exact replication of German Nazi or Italian fascism in the contemporary U.S. A 21st Century Neoliberal-era American fascist regime would be considerably less state-command-oriented than the classic historical European fascism of the last century.

It is absurd to call American neoliberal corporate and financial rule “the opposite of fascism.” The opposite of fascism, a brutal form of capitalism, is democratic socialism.

You’ll notice the binary opposition between neoliberal/corporate/financial rule and democratic socialism. Isn’t it the case that neoliberal corporate and financial rule will be continuing under Biden? For that matter, there are qualitative differences between bourgeois democratic states and fascist states. What Street doesn’t seem to grasp is the preference of the ruling class for parliamentary democracy since it allows it to rule on the basis of what Gramsci called hegemony. Drawing from Marx’s idea that “The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force”, Gramsci saw the capitalist state as being made up of two overlapping spheres, a ‘political society’ (which rules through force) and a ‘civil society’ (which rules through consent). Under fascism, civil society no longer exists unless of course you adhere to the theory of “neo-fascism”, which allows everything under the sun.

Even more critically, Gramsci refers to the “manufacture of consent”, the term more familiarly associated with Noam Chomsky. Civil Society creates the conditions under which the working class can control itself. If there is a free press, etc., the illusion of democracy can be sustained. If Donald Trump decided after being re-elected to put the Murdoch corporation in charge of the NY Times, the Washington Post, CNN and MSNBC, that illusion would disappear and the ruling class would have to resort to naked force. The media, the universities, the religious bodies, the nonprofits, the vast array of clubs and professional institutions of bourgeois society constitute what Gramsci called civil society. While defenders of civil society like George Soros see it as a crucial factor in strengthening democracy, they in fact are essential to the stabilization of bourgeois society by serving as a pressure valve. Upset over Donald Trump? No problem. Form a group that will get out the vote for Joe Biden or some other enlightened bourgeois politician like Pete Buttegieg. His father Joseph, one of the USA’s leading Gramsci scholars, explained how all this worked in an article titled Gramsci on Civil Society (boundary 2, Vol. 22, No. 3, Autumn, 1995):

Gramsci regarded civil society as an integral part of the state; in his view, civil society, far from being inimical to the state, is, in fact, its most resilient constitutive element, even though the most immediately visible aspect of the state is political society, with which it is all too often mistakenly identified. He was also convinced that the intricate, organic relationships between civil society and political society enable certain strata of society not only to gain dominance within the state but also, and more importantly, to maintain it, perpetuating the subalternity of other strata. To ignore or to set aside these crucial aspects of Gramsci’s concept of civil society is tantamount to erasing the crucial differences that set his theory of the state apart from the classic liberal version.

All of the advanced capitalist countries see the need for protecting civil society even at the same time they tried to erode it as the need arises. Under Donald Trump, there was little attempt to throttle it. Under fascist rule, the main goal is to rule by force because the masses lack the means to affect public policy. In classical fascism, Hitler and Mussolini created an alternative to civil society (Nazi boy scouts, sports clubs, etc.) that worked as long as the system could provide the material conditions that kept the working-class placated. Once the economy begins to shrink, especially during wartime austerity, there are attempts to use counter-force to return to “normality”. Under Vichy France and Mussolini’s Italy, resistance movements arose that threatened the long-term viability of the capitalist system. Fortunately for the ruling class, the Communists essentially sought the same goal: bourgeois democracy. In Germany, where the totalitarian grip was deepest, the resistance was weaker. It fell to the student activists of White Rose and the military brass organized through Operation Valkyrie to defeat fascism but not capitalism.

A word or two on Street’s nasty demagogy. This bullshit about “the affluent Caucasian males” was obviously aimed at people like me. Of course, it would apply to Frederick Engels who was a textile mill owner. My entire life has been spent as a computer programmer, a job that was enough to pay my rent, put food on my table and give me the leisure time I needed to do political work. I have no idea what Street does besides lecturing students but I have been a revolutionary since 1967. After I broke with sectarianism, I became active in the solidarity movement for the revolution in El Salvador. That led in turn to my work with Tecnica, a volunteer organization that sent people to Nicaragua and South Africa after Nelson Mandela became president, as well as other frontline states.

While I doubt that he will take my advice, it would behoove him to lay off this class baiting. Affluence does not come from writing Cobol programs. It comes from owning real estate or succeeding on Wall Street. Ernest Mandel, who was one of the foremost Marxist economists of the post-WWII period, tried to theorize the new working class that included programmers. I admit that I saw very little initiatives taken by fellow programmers over the years except for the formation of Computer Professionals for Peace that campaigned against Reagan’s Star Wars program. However, the winds might be shifting. People working for Google have formed a union that can easily become part of a transformed labor movement that will be as key to our epoch as the CIO was in the 30s. NPR reported:

After the death of George Floyd, Google engineer Raksha Muthukumar sent an email to colleagues.

In it, she pointed to a list of criminal justice reform groups and bail funds for protesters who were seeking contributions. Soon after, Muthukumar was summoned into a meeting with Google’s human relations department.

“I remember that was such a scary experience. It was such a mysterious HR letter. And I was texting friends who had been involved with organizing and they were like, ‘Oh, this is my experience with HR. This is what has happened. Don’t forget to take notes on it,'” said Muthukumar, 25, who is based in New York City.

This is the kind of repression we have to worry about now, not the clown show that broke windows at the Capitol.


  1. Mostly what Street doesn’t grasp is that without a working class movement organized sufficiently to wield state power the ruling class has absolutely no need nor desire to implement fascism.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — February 10, 2021 @ 10:47 pm

  2. My reaction to your various postings on this matter today, in combination with some other bubbling thoughts of my own, led me to the following “reply.” (The Unrepentant Absurdist). Sometimes, I think you waste too much of your admirable energy on fools.

    And So It Is Written For None To Read
    11 February 2021

    Comment by manuelgarciajr — February 11, 2021 @ 1:33 am

  3. PS has always been somewhat of a fraud…he ‘s a derivative who lifts quotes from his intellectual betters, spends a few paragraphs changing the words around and then accordingly appropriates as if he’s an original theorist.

    Comment by Prescient Storm — February 12, 2021 @ 4:00 pm

  4. While I am a big fan of Mr. Proyect, I think it is premature to dismiss the riot of Jan 6th as a, “…clown show that broke windows at the Capitol”. Certainly the characterization of the events as some kind of existential threat to American democracy, etc.. is hyperbole. But then, 911 was not any kind of existential threat to the American imperium either. Nevertheless, its historical significance in the light of subsequent events belied the actions of 19 Arabs with box-cutters. Let’s see how this plays out.

    Comment by Joseph Kozak — February 13, 2021 @ 1:06 am

  5. excellent louis! i am sick of the assaults on Trump as the main problem without critically evaluating the neoliberal regime that sustains it ll. my piece on CounterPunch got some discussion at the NYTimes: https://www.counterpunch.org/2020/06/09/trump-is-not-the-problem/

    Comment by John O'Kane — February 13, 2021 @ 3:40 am

  6. Aa

    Comment by David Green — February 14, 2021 @ 2:58 am

  7. Street and DiMaggio became featured CP writers after the death of Alexander Cockburn. This is indicative of a steady decline, embodied in anti-fascism, anarchism, and Dimaggio’s survey data driven abstract empiricism rooted in a raging idealism. St. Clair and Frank have supported and encouraged this trend. They are what I would call eco-anarchists. Beyond that, pretty tired, repetitive, formulaic columns from Nader, Jesse Jackson, Marcus Raskin, Ron Jacobs, other spent 60s folks. Some young punks as well. Obviously there’s financial trouble, and I imagine it will fold in a year or two. The only decent columnist left is Rob Urie. RIP A. Cockburn.

    Comment by David Green — February 14, 2021 @ 3:16 am

  8. Maybe too much “eco-anarchism” for you at CP, Mr. Green, whatever that is, but the fact that they have Marcus Raskin writing columns and he has been dead for five years is pretty damn remarkable, you must say.

    Comment by notabilia — February 14, 2021 @ 12:32 pm

  9. The only decent columnist left is Rob Urie.

    Except on Syria.

    Comment by louisproyect — February 14, 2021 @ 12:36 pm

  10. I meant Jonah Raskin.
    Urie addresses structural issues. He doesn’t dance to anyone’s bourgeois tune.

    Comment by David Green — February 14, 2021 @ 4:31 pm

  11. “clown show”

    It certainly was that, but with very sinister clowns. Trump is a stand-up comic and so are his supporters. The US has perfected a kind of comedy that laughs sobbing at its lack of self-esteem and then blows your head off. I pagliacci with Glocks, trained by the NRA.

    I don’t think that “we” (whoever that is) should overlook the crisis of legitimacy of the US bourgeois democratic republic. The Capitol assault clearly demonstrates the contempt in which many hold the legislative branch of the US government, which is the only “democratic” thing in the constitution apart from the supernumerary Bill of Rights.

    Clowns felt entitled to attack the Temple of Democracy because they think it’s an even bigger joke than they are. If you value the peoples’ assets vested for the moment in the governance infrastructure of the liberal state, this should be a matter of concern.

    Comment by Farans Kalosar — February 16, 2021 @ 5:15 pm

  12. Referring to SPLC “data” as the O’Kane CP article does was, for good and still currently valid reasons, anathema to the late A. Cockburn. The current obsession with domestic “terrorism” will, however make the ADL smile.

    Comment by David Green — February 18, 2021 @ 5:43 am

  13. If Counterpunch has been rendered unreadable, what blogs/websites would you recommend?

    Comment by David Keenan — February 23, 2021 @ 2:21 am

  14. @David Keenan. None that don’t arouse vituperation on this blog.

    Comment by David Green — February 26, 2021 @ 2:15 am

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