By JOHN LESLIE
An anti-quarantine protest organized by rightist groups in Michigan on April 15 drew a large crowd to the state capitol in Lansing. Waving Trump and confederate flags, the crowd of protesters, who police estimated at close to 4000, clamored for the reopening of the economy and demanded a return to work. Many of the protesters in Michigan carried firearms.
The proto-fascist Proud Boys, militia members, and groups linked to the far right DeVos family, the Kochs, and other rightist figures participated in this mobilization. At one point, protesters’ cars blocked access to a hospital and delayed an ambulance reaching the ER for 10 minutes. Organizers supposedly cautioned participants to stay in their cars to maintain social distancing, but this was ignored by hundreds who streamed onto capitol grounds.
Additionally, demonstrations calling on states to end the lockdowns have occurred in Ohio, North Carolina, Minnesota, Utah, Virginia, Oklahoma, and Kentucky. Another such protest is planned in Harrisburg, Pa., on April 20.
While some disoriented workers may have participated in this mobilization, the real social base of this manifestation was in the petty bourgeoisie, such as small business owners, shopkeepers, and small contractors. Small capitalists, who didn’t get the same bailouts as the richest segment of society, are also threatened with ruin by the current COVID-19-associated economic crisis.
These protests are not being organized by robed Klansmen or neo-Nazis. They are being put into motion by powerful interests, including the Michigan Conservative Coalition, a GOP front group, and the Michigan Freedom Fund, a conservative group with ties to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. DeVos herself is an offspring of the powerful Prince family. Her father was a long-time kingmaker in Michigan politics. Her brother Eric was the founder of the Blackwater mercenary outfit. Other organizations involved with these protests—the Heritage Foundation, the Tea Party Patriots, FreedomWorks, and ALEC are all controlled and financed by Charles Koch. The Koch brothers were centrally involved in the formation of the Tea Party movement.
Trump, of course, is encouraging these protests, tweeting, “Liberate Minnesota! Liberate Virginia! Liberate Michigan!” While saying in public that ending the lockdowns is up to the governors, he is mobilizing his base with the exact opposite message. In the case of Virginia, he is invoking the 2nd Amendment, an action that sets the stage for armed demonstrations.
The world capitalist economy was already moving to crisis. The coronavirus crisis has deepened and accelerated the situation.
In the U.S., there is an opportunity for the working class and its allies to build both social and class struggles. This is also an opportunity to build an independent working-class party. None of this is preordained but is a possibility. We already saw an uptick in class struggles before the crisis. Now, we see workers acting on the job in self-defense. We also see working people demanding relief from rents and debt as the crisis deepens.
The ruling class has exposed itself. It’s clear to many people now that the rich care more about their wealth than the lives of people. You see it in politicians and reactionary commentators, like Dr. Phil, Dr. Oz, and Fox host Jeanine Pirro, who state that society must accept a certain number of deaths to restart the economy. This chorus is joined by politicians associated with the GOP.
An opportunity for the right
This crisis is also an opportunity for the far right, which is already mobilizing as we see in Michigan and other places. This represents a mobilization of what Trotsky called the “crazed petty bourgeoisie” and provides one of the elements of the raw material of fascism. These demonstrations are reminiscent of those put on by the reactionary Tea Party, which had the character of a proto-fascist movement. The Tea Party rose in reaction to the election of the first Black president of the U.S. and represented the reactionary fears of a layer of white people who had been battered by neoliberalism and globalization.
While there is no mass fascist movement today, the far right has been energized by Trump and his anti-immigrant and racist rhetoric. From Charlottesville to Portland, the far right has been organizing and preparing for conflict. The ruling class does not need a mass fascist movement at this time but will call up such a movement if their power and wealth are threatened.
In 1932, Trotsky wrote about this phenomenon, “At the moment that the ‘normal’ police and military resources of the bourgeois dictatorship, together with their parliamentary screens, no longer suffice to hold society in a state of equilibrium—the turn of the fascist regime arrives. Through the fascist agency, capitalism sets in motion the masses of the crazed petty bourgeoisie and the bands of declassed and demoralized lumpenproletariat—all the countless human beings whom finance capital itself has brought to desperation and frenzy” (italics, my emphasis).
While the Sanders campaign is over, illusions in reformist electoralism are still strong. Working people can’t afford to delude themselves about the nature of the state and its institutions. We can’t rely on the capitalist courts, cops, or politicians to protect us from the far right.
In reference to cops and fascism, Socialist Workers Party leader Farrell Dobbs wrote: “What is the tactic of the ruling class? How does the ruling class proceed when it’s getting ready to utilize fascism? What they want at that point is to turn from the existing form of bourgeois rule to a ruthless fascist dictatorship. The objective is to crush the organizations and the combat capacity of the working class, the main opponent of the capitalist class.
“In a given country at a particular time when the bourgeoisie opens this chapter, there will be one or another degree of democratic rights. Our situation is one where there are on the law books a somewhat extensive body of formal democratic rights won by the masses in the history of the class struggle in the U.S. The approach of the ruling class is to begin to move toward a deterioration of those rights.
“Their tactic is to protect the rights of the fascists while at the same time using fascist forces to try to keep others from exercising those rights. One of the forces used to implement this is that most malevolent of all the repressive instruments of capitalist rule, the police forces. The police structure is of a character that makes it a breeding ground for fascists.
“You don’t only have an army of capitalist cops that represses opponents of capitalism, you have a ripe recruiting ground for fascism itself. You not only have cops implementing ruling class orders in aiding the fascists, you have a police force that is honeycombed with fascists.”
Marxist economist Ernest Mandel also made an essential point on the nature of the modern state, writing: “It should not take much perspicacity to see that the industrialists and bankers, who own and operate most of the resources of the United States and control the major political parties, likewise direct the employment of the military machine and other repressive agencies of the federal government The use of police, state guards, and federal troops to put down the ghetto uprisings testifies to the openly repressive function of the capitalist state apparatus. Yet liberal Americans find it difficult to generalize from these quite flagrant facts and thus to accept the sociological definition of state power offered by Marxism.
“They are blinded or baffled by three misconceptions: (1) that there are no clearly defined class formations in American society; (2) that there are no serious or irreconcilable conflicts between classes; and (3) that the government is not ‘the executive committee’ administering the general affairs and furthering the aims of the capitalist exploiters, but that it is—or can be made into—the supreme agency for taking care of the welfare of the whole people, rather than serving the interests of the minority rich” (Mandel, The Marxist Theory of the State).
Socialists argue that bourgeois political parties are integral parts of the capitalist state setup. They serve the purpose of legitimizing and organizing the capitalist state. But, you might ask, aren’t there workers in the Democratic Party? What about them?
The Democrats are very skilled at co-opting the leaderships of social movements, labor, women, oppressed nationalities, LGBTQI+, into their structures and using these leaderships to subordinate working people and social movements to their agenda. This is where the left “wing” of the party comes into play. They play a crucial role as a reformist shock absorber for capital, not as an opposition. The party tends to tolerate this left wing as long as it doesn’t get too close to the levers of power in the party.
Revolutionary socialist opposition to working inside the Democratic Party isn’t about “sectarianism” or ultraleftism but is based on the principled and practical observation that decades of work inside that party by some housebroken socialists and ostensible communists has not advanced the struggles of workers and the oppressed.
Going forward, we have to build social and class struggles, and a class-struggle left wing in the unions. It’s also necessary to forge a revolutionary combat party. We have to be prepared to mobilize the working class and its allies against a far-right movement that will try to exploit this crisis. Workers’ organizations should also support demands for support for small businesses. This will help expose the ruling class as enemies of the petty bourgeois layers.
Mass counter-mobilization against the far right is an essential tool in our arsenal. This will require the involvement of the unions, as the primary mass organizations of workers, however flawed they may be at the present time. A growing far-right movement will also bring into focus the need for defense guards to protect our movements and meetings.