In the past I’ve noted several times the way that Bernie Sanders reflects antifascist thought, and I’ve long thought I should write up something more substantial to flesh this out. Here’s an attempt at doing so.
“Socialism or Barbarism”
This is an old phrase in left circles, which can be traced back to Rosa Luxemburg and Friedrich Engels before her. To understand where I’m going with antifascist thought, I want to take a short tangent to discuss “socialism or barbarism” first.
The concept, as it’s been picked up and developed since Luxembourg’s death, is simple, but requires some basic historical thinking. We like to think of modern western liberal society as having developed over the past handful of centuries through a series of reforms and bourgeois revolutions that have brought greater and more progressive rights to the people.
Anticapitalist theory understands this to be true on its face, but counters with another parallel narrative. That industrialization, capitalism, modern imperialism, and globalization have created a world of increasing inequality, exploitation, and alienation. Liberal capitalism in particular drives impulses for accumulation and an increasingly greater concentration of wealth and power.
As Pankaj Mishra puts it, this in turn drives “ressentiment.” Anger at the powerful can explode in coherent and meaningful drives for greater justice and equality, at national and international scopes. But just as frequently, if not more so, the powerful are able to shape the very movements that arise out of ressentiment. These movements then take the shape of fascism, reaction, scapegoating, demagoguery, chaos, and terror.
So what is meant by “socialism or barbarism” is that if the classical path of liberal progress leads us to ressentiment or fascism—barbarism by other names—then the only alternative is not more reform or greater individual rights. Those things are constituents of ideas about liberal progress, the things that got us to the crisis point in the first place. The only alternative, then, is an anticapitalist reworking of society, one in which constant private concentration of wealth and power does not exist. What is needed is socialism.
Antifascist theory is diverse and multivalent. But in a nutshell, the above is what it boils down to. It places the rise of fascism within historical context, understanding it to be the product of, rather than simply the rejection of, liberal modern capitalism. Antifascists therefore understand that to defeat fascism, it’s not enough to secure liberal individual rights for everyone. Rather, one needs to embrace a program of anti-alienation, anti-ressentiment, and therefore anti-capitalism.
As suggested above, ressentiment becomes fascism when it is redirected by the powerful against the weak. (Historians often write of fascism as a bargain between the bourgeois and the petit-bourgeois, or the middle class, as a means of deflecting the bourgeoisie’s role in putting down all others.) In order for this to happen, scapegoating is necessary. Scapegoating is the process by which particular groups of people are made to take the blame for factors for which they are not at fault.
Bernie Sanders doesn’t use the word “scapegoat” when he speaks of oligarchs like Donald Trump and Narendra Modi, but he does use the word “demagogue” to mean more or less the same thing.
It should be no surprise to readers that have made it this far that in Bernie’s special 2019 speech on “democratic socialism,” the language of antifascism figured prominently. That is, he understood antifascism to be closely related to the question of “socialism or barbarism.”
You can read the speech here. He describes the scapegoating of figures including Rodrigo Duterte, Jair Bolsonaro, and Mohamed Bin Salman:
These leaders meld corporatist economics with xenophobia and authoritarianism. They redirect popular anger about inequality and declining economic conditions into violent rage against minorities — whether they are immigrants, racial minorities, religious minorities or the LGBT community. And to suppress dissent, they are cracking down on democracy and human rights.
And he continues later:
This authoritarian playbook is not new. The challenge we confront today as a nation, and as a world, is in many ways not different from the one we faced a little less than a century ago, during and after the Great Depression in the 1930s. Then, as now, deeply-rooted and seemingly intractable economic and social disparities led to the rise of right-wing nationalist forces all over the world.
In Europe, the anger and despair was ultimately harnessed by authoritarian demagogues who fused corporatism, nationalism, racism and xenophobia into a political movement that amassed totalitarian power, destroyed democracy, and ultimately murdering millions of people.
To be clear, what Bernie is doing here is unlike the speech of most American politicians. He is citing the historical nature of inequality, intolerance, and injustice. If it is a cliche to say that “radical” means to understand or get down to the roots of something, we still might be excused for noting that Bernie’s approach is a radical antifascist one.
It’s difficult to imagine any other candidate running for president using the word “corporatism.” But it’s a common term among theorists and historians of fascism. Corporatism, in short, was the alliance between big business and fascist governments that manifested in some way or another in the European fascist governments of the 1920s and 1930s, and elsewhere around the world throughout the 20th and 21st centuries, from Pinochet’s Chile to Indonesia under Suharto. We’ve been educated by cold war hegemonic institutions to see “totalitarianism” as something contrary to liberal capitalism, but the truth is that fascist states were capitalist in the most classic sense—they privileged the reduction in ownership of the means of production to a select private few, who were free to accumulate capital.