Narrating American Antifascism

Against the Current, No. 180, January/February 2016

Keith Gilyard

Haunted by Hitler:
Liberals, the Left, and the Fight against Fascism in the United States
By Christopher Vials
Amherst & Boston: University of Massachusetts Press, 2014, 280 pages,
$26.95 paperback.

BACK IN THE day, a dear friend of mine newly intrigued with the program of the Black Panther Party firmly declared to a group of us that he was against racism and fascism. He pronounced the latter term face-ism, instead of rhyming it with hashism, something with which a few members of our group were familiar.

We assisted our friend with pronunciation, but failed to help him articulate clearly to us what this fascism he opposed was all about. Collectively, we settled on the rather vague conception that it was Hitler-like, J. Edgar Hooverish and Nixonesque.

Of course we were not totally wrong in our limited assessment, but we can now be absolutely great and expansive conversationalists as well as more informed activists after reading Christopher Vials’ masterful and provocative Haunted by Hitler.

Springing from the author’s concern about the possibilities of fascism in the United States — a rational fear given the lengthening history of organized right-wing movements in this country — Vials leads us to the discernment that enables the best examinations of fascist-like formations.

Fascism and Functional Equivalents

The governing idea for the author is that properly evaluating these troublesome political trends is essential to the ability to counter them effectively. In service of this project, he offers readers three crucial tools: clear definition, astute historical grounding and, perhaps most absorbing, an indexical view of a fascinating repository of left-liberal, antifascist scholarly and cultural articulations.

These antifascist expressions constitute a generative tradition, and offer valuable resources in current “wars of position” relative to struggles for greater equality and justice.

Because a constellation of meanings has accrued to fascism as a vocabulary item, Vials expresses pointedly that for his purposes, historically, fascism was the far-right political movement most fully expressed in Italy and Germany from the 1920s to the 1940s. Its defining characteristics included rigid social hierarchies, rampant militarism, anti-Marxism, racism, homophobia, narrow nationalism and the destruction of democratic spaces.

Fascists certainly overlapped with business elites in their interests; an authoritarian, anti-left state is good for corporate profits. But differing from a significant strand of fascism historiography, Vials explains that fascism was never merely a direct expression of the business elite. Rather, its agents were mostly dispossessed yet politically ambitious members of the middle class.

It’s this same segment of the United States population, to the extent it is anti-intellectual, anti-cosmopolitan and xenophobic, that worries Vials. To be sure, he envisions no American Reich on the horizon, no Blackshirts and Brownshirts goose-stepping in the streets. On the other hand, following historian and political scientist Robert Paxton, he feels that we should always be on guard against fascism’s “functional equivalents.” (19)

After all, as the author points out, the liberal United States inspired some of the eugenic theory and modeled some of the eugenic legislation of the Nazis.

The Antifascist Culture

To link readers to a residual culture of American antifascism, Vials describes the antifascist alliance of the 1930s and 1940s. He considers three major fronts: the communist left, which galvanized around the Communist Party U.S.A.; socialists, a diffuse strand of activists most visible in the American Socialist Party and later the Socialist Workers’ Party; and liberals, including officials of the New Deal state and writers such as Lewis Mumford, Malcolm Cowley and Waldo Frank.

Vials credits this left-liberal coalition (as it was, at least at times) with securing some of the signature social and economic policies of the Roosevelt era. In the public sphere, where for a long time praise of Mussolini and tolerance of Hitler were not uncommon given their disciplining of labor and civil society, leftists and liberals battled the likes of law-and-order media magnate William Randolph Hearst, social conservative Charles Coughlin, whom Vials cites as the founding father of right-wing radio, and economic bigwigs and their apologists whose opinions filled many pages of Business Week, Barron’s, Time and the Wall Street Journal.

According to Vials, some of the most significant legacies of leftists and liberals of the 1930s and 1940s are that they forced openly pro-fascists onto the defensive, made antifascism mainstream, and stigmatized fascism as a semantic marker in the public imagination.

Much of this work was accomplished through the liberal American Jewish Congress, the socialist Jewish Labor Committee, and the communist-initiated American League Against War and Fascism. That populist American culture assumed a largely left and antifascist character is illustrated, to Vials, by a long list of cultural productions, including installments of the comic strip Joe Palooka.

Another gift of interwar and even postwar antifascists in Vials’ estimation is an “intersectional analysis of reaction” (87) that moved beyond economic determinism. Vials indicates the problem that needed to be addressed:

“An analysis of fascism focused exclusively on the machinations of great wealth might be able to inform a counterstrategy capable of redirecting middle-class anger away from people of color, religious minorities, communists, and foreigners. But it would not furnish its opponents with concrete tools for combating the psychological and emotional appeals of nationalism, racism, and militarism so critical to fascism’s middle-class base.” (72)

To Vials, therefore, the suturing of antifascism to anticolonialism as in the writing of Trinidadian-born Pan-Africanist George Padmore, and a positing of connections between fascism and gender exploitation as represented in the pamphleteering of Dorothy McConnell, are welcome contributions.

The author also embraces, as an ideological bequest, the decisive shifting away from the left’s commitment to teleology or stageism to a stress on contingency, human agency and political organization. No socialist world, or even simply a more socially just one, automatically follows from the resolution of capitalism’s fascist contradiction.

Fighting Postwar Reaction

Indeed, even after the rousing defeat of European fascism in World War II, antifascist ideals had to be vocalized with renewed vigor and craft in the United States given Cold-War imperatives to entrench exploitative class relations and stifle the democratic promise of the People’s War.

The witch hunts of the House Com­mittee on Un-American Activities, the List of Subversive Organizations released by Attorney General Tom C. Clark, the passage of the anti-worker Taft-Hartley Act, and the machinations of the Senate Security Committee under the leadership of Joe McCarthy signaled a resurgent fascist perspective focused publicly on anticommunism.

Moreover, the reenergized right wing received cover, however unintentional, from liberal-minded scholars such as Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. and Hannah Arendt, who conflated fascism and communism in their respective works The Vital Center: The Politics of Freedom (1949) and The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951).

Vials reminds us, however, that American policy, heavily influenced by the right, did not equally reject fascism and communism, as Schlesinger and Arendt advocated. In fact, it favored the rehabilitation of former Axis enemies and looked to them as anticommunist allies rather than pushing for greater egalitarianism or extension of the New Deal. (106)

For the purposes of the notorious McCarran Internal Security Act, Nazi and Fascist parties did not fall under the definition of totalitarian. Still, antifascist culture producers, even as they were subject to blacklisting in such a hostile political environment, kept their eyes on the aggressors they most feared as they coded their 1950s critiques in historical allegories such as Arthur Miller’s 1953 drama The Crucible and the television series “The Adventures of Robin Hood,” which ran on American television between 1955 and 1958, and in science fiction such as Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury’s classic 1953 novel.

Vials declares the early 1960s to have been the “postwar highpoint of antifascism in the American mainstream.” (129) He stakes this claim on the influence of William Shirer’s 1960 best-selling history The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany, Edward Lewis Wallant’s 1961 novel The Pawnbrokers, Betty Friedan’s 1963 The Feminist Mystique, and a series of antifascist-themed scripts written by Rod Serling for “Twilight Zone” between 1960 and 1963.

Amid a wave of violent anti-Semitism in cities on several continents and a growing uneasiness in the United States that despite military triumph and the prosecution of Nazi war criminals, racist and genocidal tendencies resided at the mass level and were able to form a recombinant Nazism, antifascist writers on the whole in the 1960s psychologized fascism to a greater degree than did their predecessors.

They easily imagined a racist and genocidal Adolf Eichmann-’n-the-Hood. It was not a far-fetched envisioning given the emergence of Barry Goldwater and the appeal of the John Birch Society, which, in fact, held a demonstration within walking distance of my home during that time period.

The Black Panthers

In the late 1960s, the most concerted mining of the antifascist tradition was performed by the Black Panthers, who under the guidance of Bobby Seale invoked the term “fascism” more frequently than any other postwar political group, particularly between 1969 and 1971. It was easy for my friend to pick up on it.

In Vials’ analysis, the term attracted Seale because in an era of white backlash he saw it as a strategy for coalition building primarily among communities of color which experienced, among other setbacks, violent repression at the hands of local law-enforcement authorities.

Lived experiences within a white supremacist structure, though not neatly analogous to 1930s Germany, provided an existential understanding of fascism. Folks of color in certain communities felt the visiting of spatialized repression on those relegated literally to the margins of a failing liberal experiment. Of course, the warning in argument’s like Seale’s, as in all modern antifascist rhetoric, was that if it happens in our spaces it ultimately can happen in your corner of the capitalist hierarchy.

Vials observes that the Black Panthers never did provide a systematic definition of fascism and that any attempt to do so became moot after Huey Newton shifted the ideological direction of the group away from nation-centered talk about fascism to “intercommunalism.” Nonetheless, the Panthers remain vital in the repository of antifascism for their work within and across organizations such as the United Front Against Fascism, Brown Berets, Young Lords, and I Wor Yuen.

Vials remarks, “The late sixties was not the first time people of color had organized around the concept of fascism, but it did mark the first moment that the concept had become a focal point within a multiracial coalition in which whites played an auxiliary role at best.” (161)

The Queer Contribution

Contributing strikingly to the antifascist tradition was the transnational gay and lesbian movement of the 1970s through the early 1990s. As Vials explains, these queer activists, specifically Marxists in West Germany, were the first to take a Nazi symbol, the downward pointing pink triangle tagged to the prison uniforms of homosexuals, and employ it for their own purposes, with the triangle pointing upward.

Thus, they held a victory over fascism at the level of icon even as they continued to fashion public statements about the interplay among homophobia, historical Nazism, and the present, and developed to varying degrees what Vials labels “queer antifascism,” a left-inflected critique aimed at effecting broad social and political transformation. (200)

Important works in the archive of antifascism produced during this era include Robert Plant’s 1986 history The Pink Triangle: The Nazi War against Homosexuals and A Bright Room Called Day, Tony Kushner’s 1985 play that Vials describes as the “most insightful literary instance of pink triangle antifascism.”

Queer antifascism of the early 1990s represented the last sustained evocation of fascism as an analytic category in a left-oriented social movement in the United States.

Vials sees a need for such a hermeneutic and for democratic organizing given the anti-LGBT Christian Right, which he views as the functional equivalent of fascism, a viewpoint he shares with journalists Chris Hedges and Michelle Goldberg, authors respectively of the 2006 American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America and Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism.

The point is not merely to condemn the Christian Right; the idea for Vials is to be ever vigilant regarding any injection of fascist discourse into mainstream politics and name it for what it is. He resists any tendency to call every reactionary movement fascist because that robs the term of descriptive power and compromises insight.

The Tea Party, for example, that motley assemblage of populists, libertarians, war hawks, social conservatives and neoliberals that repeatedly hijacks the Republican Party, reveals sharp contradictions in philosophical liberalism but is too diverse and committed to deliberative processes to be a fascist assemblage in the author’s view. But when a darling of the Tea Party, Sarah Palin, speaks before a national political convention, we should know, although she doesn’t disclose it, that she is quoting the fascist journalist Westbrook Pegler. (2-3)

Vials knows that much of the fascist impulse in this country is not stamped with swastikas but swaddled in Americana.

The world may be a “ball of confusion,” as the classic Motown pop song once had it, but a modern left has to remain its most reasonable aspect. Haunted by Hitler is a shining manifestation of liberating thought written by a talented, dedicated and engaging scholar who possesses wise political commitments. I am anxious to read it again.

January-February 2016, ATC 180