Skinheads: The New Nazism

Against the Current No. 22, September/October 1989

Christopher Phelps

IN FRANCE, Jean-Marie Le Pen whips up xenophobia, waging campaigns that cut into longtime Communist Party strongholds.

In West Berlin—shortly after street baffles pitting fascist youth gangs against leftists, autonomists and Turkish youth —rum-Nazi Republicans come out of the January elections with a percentage that doubles their previous West German high mark.

Even in the United States, fascist seedlings here and there indicate a movement that could take full root.

Take recent elections. During the 1988 primaries, the Populist Party, full of fantasies about a cabal of Jewish bankers and Bolsheviks bent on global domination, garnered 50,000 votes in five farm belt states.

George Bush, meanwhile, protected those of his top national campaign officials who were revealed to be long time fascists, with almost no negative media or voter response. And in February, David Duke, once an Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan and before that a member of the American Nazi Party, won a seat in the Louisiana state legislature after promising to dismantle affirmative action.

But the starkest indication of a potential for fascism is in its new activist base: the increasingly violent and numerous fascist skinhead movement.(1)

One Friday night last fall in Portland, Oregon, airport worker Mulugeta Seraw, an Ethiopian immigrant, met some friends at a bar. At midnight, they drove Seraw home.

As Seraw waved and turned toward his house, another car pulled up sharply. Out piled a trio of male skinheads who proceeded to kick Seraw repeatedly and beat him with baseball bats. From inside the car, three women yelled, “Kill him! Kill him!” Their wish was granted.

A random assault? Not in Portland, where skinheads in the last year alone have committed more than one hundred “hate crimes”—attacks and harassment motivated by religious intolerance, racial hatred or homophobia.

Since killing Seraw, for instance, Portland skinheads have knifed a Black man, carved a swastika in the leg of a junior high school boy, and dismembered a dog, placing its bloody head on a gay man’s front porch.

And while they have proclaimed the Pacific Northwest “the future white state,” the new fascists have not limited their barbarism to any single city or region. The skinhead core, excluding sympathizers, has exploded from about 300 in 1986 to 3,500 today, with a significant presence in half of the country’s states.

Generally between 15 and 21 years of age, skinheads have long been known for their style—tonsured heads, olive-green flight jackets, suspenders and steel-toed Doe Martin boots—but in the last two years have demonstrated a more severe propensity to violence and a deepening ideological commitment to fascism.

No matter where they’re found, Nazi skinheads leave their mark—on the bodies of their victims. The grisly record is clear, even if many attacks go unreported and almost all go unpunished. In Nevada, a carload of seventeen-year-old Nazis gunned down a young Black as he walked from his sister’s home in Reno. In Florida, two skinheads stabbed a slumbering homeless man to death.

“I am a violent person,” said Clark Martell, leader of the Chicago Area Skinheads (CASH), who was arrested after allegedly painting a swastika on a wall with the blood of a disaffected skinhead woman he had maced and beaten. “I love the white race, and if you love something, you’re the most vicious person on earth,”(2)

Destroying Punk Culture

Skinheads sprung from the same underground scene that, in many cities, they have managed to destroy.

Eight years ago, the United States was home to a thriving punk culture. Raucous bands played gritty clubs. “Hardcores” sporting colorful haircuts and studded leather jackets were at the center of hundreds of dynamic local scenes.

In that early phase, the punk rebellion was unmistakably dissident. Not only did punk constitute a cultural radicalism, but many punk groups expounded anarchist politics. Lyrics and manifestos heaped trenchant sarcasm upon key social institutions, the government and middle-class life.

But from the turbulent youth rebellion also sprung many oddities and varied tendencies, among them skinheads. At first skinheads were a mixed political bag, not given to any fixed view. But the advent of imported British records—especially ones cut by the neo-Nazi band Screwdriver—led to the melding of “skinhead” with “fascist.”

As with punk, the skinhead movement matured first in Britain, and its equivalent here has always been somewhat derivative Skinhead style emerged in the early 1970s as a tough, clean reaction by English working-class youth to what they saw as the hippies’ decadent weakness and the bikers’ slovenliness. As skinhead style became increasingly associated with xenophobia and a willingness to fight, British skins were actively wooed by the National Front and developed a new musical genre, “Oi,” which delivers a white-power message.

The American skinheads’ imitation of the British Nazi example caused a sharp break with the punk culture that was its original spawning bed. Now a bitter antagonism exists between the two. In many cities, including Los Angeles, where punk once reigned, underground music scenes have been either beaten into submission or driven completely out of existence.

In Portland, for example, random attacks became wholesale domination at a 1986 triple bill of leftist punk bands. As Cheetah Chrome, an Italian anti-fascist band, took to the stage, some fifty skinheads armed with knives, pipes and baseball bats nearly tore the club apart, requiring the promoters to hustle the band out the back door.

“After that,” says Derby O’Donnell, a veteran of several Portland punk bands, “the skins had authority. They could go to any show and hick it up. Most of the time, if a leftist band would come to town, they’d beat people up outside, intimidate the hell out of everybody.”

Such cases are common but not universal. A number of punk scenes have preserved their rebel character. There are even skinheads in some cities who remain antiracist. And in a few cities, particularly Minneapolis, there are examples of leftist skinheads running Nazis out of town by giving them a taste of their own street-fighting medicine. But such examples are isolated, and leftist skins are rare and minuscule in numbers when compared to the growing ranks of their fascist enemies.(3)

Latching onto the skinhead movement’s subcultural traits—odd fashion, small numbers, extreme violence—the liberal press treats it as a marginal fringe, an aberration from an otherwise just society.

And liberal press and politicians mince no words in denouncing the skinheads’ white supremacism. It’s a useful scapegoat in a time of heightened institutional racism.

“What’s taking place,” says Useni Perkins, director of Portland’s Urban League, “is that corporate America is suggesting in a way that [skinheads] are what racism is, and that we just have to deal with that It’s very easy for many whites to make that accusation.”

In reality, skinheads are not aberrations. Without a broader racist culture and the example of establishment bigotry, skinheads would not be able to be so proud and patriotic about their beliefs. The dominant society gives them sanction. The murder of Mulugeta Seraw, for instance, occurred only two weeks after the passage of an extremely homophobic ballot measure in Oregon and the manipulation of the Willie Horton case by the Bush campaign. Without a doubt, systemic racism—such as sweeping police attacks on Black youth and the immiseration of the Black underclass—is a more deep-rooted, central problem than skinheads.

But fascist skinheads are responsible for extreme harassment, brutality and murder, so that devising an effective response to them is of immediate, if not fundamental, importance. Skinheads, moreover, may comprise a greater threat than longer-standing white supremacist groups. Aside from bringing to the far right a youthful Vitality and rapid growth, something the survivalists and Ku Klux Klan have lacked for most of the decade, the skinheads have developed in a more classically fascist direction than other white supremacist terror groups.

Credit for the fascist cohesion of the skinhead movement goes to its top mentor. Tom Metzger. Metzger owns a TV repair shop near Fallbrook, California, heads the White Aryan Resistance (WAR), and hosts a cable television show, “Race and Reason.” He does not seem like the messianic male leaders at the crest of all previous fascisms—apparently selfless, tireless, virile and correct Instead, he cultivates the comfortable American image of a conventionally-dressed grandfather.

In that friendly guise, Metzger has been immensely successful in persuading skinheads to adopt Nazi ideology. Through his son John, who heads the Aryan Youth Movement and White Student Union, he has consolidated the white supremacist skinhead movement behind a Nazi program.

Although his shameless praise for the Wobblies and Lenin has thrown some observers off track, Metzger’s project is entirely fascist His political trajectory led him from the John Birch Society to the Ku Klux Klan, both of which he now faults for “reactionary conservatism.” Metzger argues for a “Third Position” opposed to both capitalism and communism, which he wants to defeat with a “white working-class revolution” against the “Zionist Occupational Government” (ZOG) he believes controls the United States.(4)

Such “revolutionary” pronouncements are reminiscent of Adolph Hitler’s in the Nazis’ early, agitational days, before they seized state control and embarked on their actual program of destroying workers’ organizations, racial genocide, imperialist war and accelerated capital accumulation in heavy industry. Fascist doctrine always includes condemnations of capitalism, while its actual historical function has been to stave off socialist revolution and stabilize profits in periods of decline.

Seeds of Fascism

Metzger’s use of youth as shock troops also dates back to the first fascist movements. Fascist leaders placed the greatest emphasis upon education and youth formations to assure loyalty to the state and fascist world view.

“I want a violent, arrogant, unafraid, cruel youth, who must be able to suffer pain,” Hitler wrote. “Nothing weak or tender must be left in them. Their eyes must bespeak once again the free, magnificent bird of prey.”(5)

Young, romantic reactionaries served as strikebreakers in the early days and until the bitter end remained Nazism’s most ready and brash adherents. Metzger now praises the “boot boys” for respecting that tradition, for waging the “same war the SA fought in Germany.”(6)

Backward-looking in ideology, the new fascism is forward-looking in ambition.

“What you have here is not the last, dying remnants of an old problem,” says Leonard Zeskind, research director of the Atlanta-based Center for Democratic Renewal. “What we have here is the embryo of a future problem.”(7)

What would it take for fascism to pass beyond its current incipient stage and gain widespread acceptance?

Essential to fascism’s prospects is a continued deterioration of social conditions. “Fascism” is now commonly used by the left to describe any strong state or as an epithet for anything hinting of authoritarianism. But fascism is not simply a blend of domination, racism and militarism. Nor is it, as liberal interpretations have it, a “totalitarian” system identical to Stalinism. Fascism is a specific form of imperialist ideology that takes hold in periods of economic crisis.

“Anyone who does not wish to discuss capitalism,” advised Max Horkheimer, “should also stay silent on the subject of fascism.”(8)

Analysis of skinheads, the newest wave of fascism, cannot be held exempt from Horkheimer’s maxim. Skinhead fascism has risen and spread so ferociously because of capitalist crisis.

Lisa Anderson, a Native American organizer of the recent Walk for Racial Equality and Human Dignity in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, attributes the Nazi skinheads’ growth to “a disintegrating middle class. There are not too many opportunities for people of any color …. There’s no direction or hope out there.”

There is no firm sociological evidence available, so it is difficult to determine the class origins of the North American skinhead movement. That said, there are indications that those who join the Nazi movement are, as Anderson suspects, the offspring of an increasingly despondent and disintegrating middle class made up of small shopowners, professionals, managers and petty bureaucrats.(9)

Seraw’s killers, for instance, were living in an apartment rented by a skinhead whose parents are a lawyer and businesswoman from Lake Oswego, one of Portland’s wealthiest suburbs. For kids like that, being a skinhead is a rebellious bid for what society and parents cannot provide —style, pride, community—and an outlet for hatred and frustration.

At the same time, a significant number of U.S. skinheads seem more like their English equivalents, who are overwhelmingly working class. The interest of white working-class youth in fascism stems from the same social crisis that has pinched the middle class, but from a different kind of desperation. The traditional institutions of working people, such as unions, are under attack and in retreat.

Meanwhile, young working men’s earnings, employment and job security have been the victims of long erosion. Disappointment and discontent, fed by the unlikeliness of improvement, create minds ripe for xenophobia and bigotry. In the absence of any recognized, respected bodies capable of providing them with a revolutionary perspective, working-class youth embrace fascism in the false, ironic hope that it will deliver class empowerment They perceive of themselves as white working-class revolutionaries, a fact absent from almost every mass media account.(10)

If the fascist movement grows in numbers and prominence, the relative importance of the working class and the middle class in its development will become more clear. Each, however, will be susceptible to fascism only insofar as its social position worsens.

“They’re the first generation of white kids who don’t expect to live better than their parents.” says Zeskind. “They’re alienated and fed up, and no one has reached them except the right-wing crazies.”(11)

Left Potential

But the same conditions of objective crisis and subjective alienation that create a favorable climate for fascism can, given proper intervention by the left, foreshadow fascism’s defeat.

Just as the first fascist movements were not inevitable or predestined but preventable, so they are now Fascism grew gigantic in large part because revolutionaries underestimated its seriousness and failed to correctly understand its nature, therefore rendering themselves incapable of fighting it effectively.

To derail fascism, the best strategy is in building a vigorous radical movement with a vision more appealing and convincing than the fascist message of malice. Such a movement would try to aim popular discontent at the real sources of economic insecurity, steering it away from the targets set up for the kill by the capitalist media—foreigners, Blacks, Latinos, Asians, Jews, gays and lesbians, trade unionists, “liberals.”

Part of that struggle, no doubt, will be the left’s standard tactic against the skinheads: to outmobilize the fascists whenever they call for a public show of strength. These militant counter-demonstrations have been convened repeatedly, from Georgia to Idaho. Each has produced a much larger turnout than the skinheads have mustered.

But numbers are not the only way to evaluate actions. If skinhead crimes continue to take place in a space relatively free from police reprisal, if fascism continues to gain new adherents at a steady clip, and if economic and social deterioration continues to plow the field for further far right gains, it will be even more important that radicals and progressives have standards with which to assess the merits of their actions:

1. Is the call to action inclusive?

A model of inclusive organization is the recent, well-publicized action in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, where thousands of leftists and area citizens marched through the town as about one hundred skinheads gathered inside the Aryan Nations compound to mark what would have been Hitler’s 100th birthday. The two main organizers of “The Walk for Racial Equality and Human Dignity’ were a Black man and a Native American woman. They stressed the white supremacist content of the skinhead movement, but also went farther, explicitly condemning homophobia and offering a critique of the social and institutional causes of bigotry. Gays and lesbians made up a large part of the march.

Efforts in other places have not been so exemplary. The Northwest Coalition Against Malicious Harassment, for instance, has over 200 affiliates, mainly Chambers of Commerce and city governments, in a five-state region. This group, which supposedly monitors hate crimes, advocates strict legislation and educates —apparently in a bid to save the region’s reputation for reasons of tourism and other business—has in practice concentrated almost entirely on supporting “law enforcement” as a solution. A member of the Justice Department sits on its board. The group’s interpretation of the FBI and local police departments as reliable allies in the anti-racist fight has alienated it from most grassroots activists.

The coalition also seems to be more dedicated to putting a cap on democratic actions from below than it is to ending bigotry. It has opposed every major antifascist mobilization, has accepted funds from Adolph Coors, and has charged $125 for entrance to its conventions. Lisa Anderson, organizer of the Coeur d’Alene walk, charges that such prohibit the fees were meant to exclude “all the riff-raff and all these gays and lesbians. It negated a lot of people of color. It became a really elitist thing.”

2. Do speakers and statements address root causes?

Not every rally will condemn capitalism. Nor would the presence of that word necessarily indicate an intelligent assessment of root causes for the new fascist upsurge. Other expectations, however, can be held with reason.

Contrast is provided by two recent events in Portland. Shortly after skinheads killed Seraw, a rally was called to proclaim a “City of Unity.” The rostrum was loaded with white Democrats and some Black community leaders, all ready to deliver condemnations of racism. One state official declared preposterously that racism is “unOregonian.

Nobody admitted that the “City of Unity” is actually rife with divisions according to class, race, gender and sexual preference, and that precisely those antagonisms, inherent in this society, encourage fascists to thrive. No declaration of civil good will, no rhetorical “unity,” can mask or surmount increasing social stratification and division.

On the other side of town a few months later, a Black United Front march against racist violence did better. It did not raise some key demands, such as the need for satisfying, well-paid jobs. But it did discuss the social origins of supremacist attacks. Urban League spokesman Useni Perkins cogently remarked:

“Let’s not be inclined to think racism is personified only by the skinheads. There are skinheads in three-piece suits. There are skinheads in corporate America. And there are skinheads in all other kinds of business. They may not have the shaved heads or tattoos, but they have the same thoughts.”(12)

3. Are the left’s demands liberatory or repressive?

When fascists, the Ku Klux Klan or some other group of people without any apparent redeeming value seem to be gaining recruits and momentum, the overwhelming temptation of the left is to call upon the state to restrict the right’s ability to speak and assemble.(13) When Metzger’s group called an “Aryan Woodstock” music festival, for instance, some left groups tried to convince authorities to revoke permits for the event.

The problem with such a maneuver is both philosophical and practical. No movement that aims at a democratic society should advocate that a state controlled by a capitalist ruling class impose repressive measures that restrict liberties of speech. It violates our aim of embodying our ends in our means. We want a society with wide latitude for dissent and debate. We know, furthermore, that a bourgeois state will use such precedents and tactics as ammunition in the future when it wants to gag our movements. The question, therefore, is not strictly one of civil liberties for fascists but one of civil liberties for all political movements.

But free speech does not mean absolute license. To permit fascists the freedom to print and gather is not to capitulate to the enemy. The problem in Weimar Germany, for example, was not that the Nazis got to speak but that the state let the brownshirts run wild against Jews, gays, communists and socialists. The left can argue legitimately for state punishment when skinheads are fingered for the ugly crimes they tend to commit. Nor does the free speech principle prohibit armed self-defense by those under actual attack, whether in isolated attacks, in club brawls or in street battles.

On the contrary, the refusal to rely upon the state for solutions will produce an opposite result. It will require the left to develop the kind of independent networks that would be our surest guarantors of success in thwarting any eventual bid by fascists to gain social hegemony or seize state power. The point is to resist and discourage attempts to have the state diminish the liberties of anyone to assemble and speak, while at the same time organizing our own mobilizations, demonstrations and coalitions against fascism. If those episodic actions, in turn, go beyond heaping scorn on the skinheads to promote the idea of a decent and democratic society, then we will be in a position to call our efforts liberatory.


  1. There has already been much written on the growth of the national skinhead movement. The best of the radical press surveys is Michael Novick’s “Hatred Under the Skin,” The Guardian, Dec. 14,1988:1,6. Of the liberal media, the most insightful is Jeff Coplon’s Rolling Stone article, “The Skinhead Reich,” which is reproduced with some good supplementary in Utne Reader, May/June 1989: 80-89. Three detailed, encyclopedic reports were released by the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith in 1987 and 1988–“Shavedfor Battle,” The Skinheads, and Young and Violent. For an excellent description of radical right-wing ideology in the farm belt, see Claude Misukiewicz, “The Seeds of Hatred,” Dollars & Sense, March 1989: 20-22.
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  2. ADL, Shaved for Battle, 1987,2.
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  3. Throughout this article, I use the terms “skinhead” and” fascist skinhead” as synonyms, reserving “punk” to designate culturally radical. leftist youths. This is because, aside from the Minneapolis success, the antiracist skins are minuscule in their effect. The real promise for challenging the fascists, I think, lies outside the skinhead movement, not within it. For a more sanguine view of the promise of anti-racist skinheads, see Chris Gunderson, “Anti-Racist Skinheads Ready To Strike Back at Neo-Nazis,” Utne Reader, May/June 1989,88-89.
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  4. The term “Third Positron” is borrowed from contemporary European fascists, whose odd theoretical turns and political allegiances are described by Martin Lee and Kevin Coogan in “Killers on the Right: Inside Europe’s Fascist Underground,” Mother Jones, May 1987,40-46, 52-54.
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  5. Quoted in Hannah Vogt, The Burden of Guilt (New York: Oxford University Press, 1964) 163.
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  6. Center for Democratic Renewal, “Metzger Begins Move to the Top,” The Monitor, January 1988, 5.
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  7. “Violence by Skinheads Spreads Across Nation,” Los Angela Times, Dec. 15, 1988, 21.
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  8. Quoted by Nicos Poulantzas, Fascism and Dictatorship (Verso: London, 1979), 17.
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  9. This impression is corroborated by a Rolling Stone reporter, who concluded, American skinheads are as likely to be middle-class as working poor.” (Coplon, 82).
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  10. This points to the success of Metzger in getting skin heads to see their actions as class war, compatible with white supremacism but also much broader. A letter sent by skinheads to the community newspaper I edit, for instance, argued for “smashing capitalism” and replacing it with “national socialism.” One of the few writers who does not overlook the skinheads` subjective sense of class is Chris Gunderson in the Utne Reader (Op. cit., 89)
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  11. Coplon, 82.
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  12. Quoted by Michael Ames Connor, “Blacks Lead March Against Racist Violence,” The Portland Alliance, April 1989, 6.
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  13. See, for example, Sam Marcy, The Klan and the Government (New York: World View Publishers, 1983, xxii-xxxii), who calls David McReynolds of the Socialist Party a “bourgeois liberal” for arguing in The Guardian against clampdowns on fascists’ rights to assembly and speech. A sound rebuttal of views similar to Marcy’s is given by Hal Draper in “Free Speech and Political Struggle,” Independent Socialist, No.4, April 1968, 12-16.
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  14. The author lived five blacks from the scene of the murder of Mulugeta Sevuw. Derby O’Donnell, Useni Perkins and Lisa Anderson were interviewed by the author for this article. Matt Schultz and Darrell Modlendorf read an earlier draft and contributed helpful suggestions.

September-October 1989, ATC 22