|Anti-Fascist Spanish Civil War Poster, c. 1938|
What really strikes me about this book ("The Peril of Fascism -- The Crisis of American Democracy" by A. B. Magil and Henry Stevens, International Publishers, 1938) is how contemporary it seems. What was going on when this book was written closely resembles what's going on now, particularly the overbearing of the state and the violent suppression of dissent. Magil and Stevens see this as the hallmark of fascism, just as many observers do today, but in 1938, fascism was still something relatively new and revolutionary. Now it's something old and reactionary.
Liberals and progressives today may be primarily concerned with preserving what they can of the status quo against the tide of cruelty and barbarism being led by the modern day neo-fascist vanguard. It's a losing strategy, as it was in 1938. But in 1938, there was an ideological answer, and the world would soon enough be engulfed in flames to test it. Now, there seems to be an absence of ideology to counter the march of neo-fascism. The rebellions and revolutions around the world are for the most part not ideologically based, and so they seem to have little real substance (and as we have been seeing in North Africa, they don't produce the intended results.)
Some additional excerpts from "The Peril of Fascism" to help set the scene of what was going on in the 1930's. The parallels to today are obvious, and yet the differences are, too:
It was during this period that the Supreme Court emerged as perhaps the principal institutional bulwark of reaction. In previous periods, when the Presidency had been under the firm control of big business, the court played a role secondary to the executive branch of the government as an impediment to progress. Now, however, with the Presidency in the hands of Roosevelt, the conservative corporation lawyers who dominated the Supreme Court came to the rescue of the economic royalists. When the reactionary drive against Roosevelt was at its height in the spring of 1935, the Supreme Court went into action and nullified one New Deal law after another. Among the first to go was the N. R. A., which from the viewpoint of big business had outlived its usefulness. After that came the A.A.A. decision which attacked the principle of government taxation for farm relief. Other decisions nullified the railroad retirement act, which made railroad pensions compulsory; voided the Fraizer-Lemke act, providing partial relief to mortgage-ridden farmers; and set aside other progressive legislation, all in defense of the privileges and prerogatives of big business.
Never before had the Supreme Court attempted to exercise on such a vast scale its usurped powers to nullify Congressional legislation. From 1803, when the court first claimed its powers to void the law of the country, until the Civil War, the court wielded this power only once -- in the notorious Dred Scott case, which played an important part in precipitating the war between the states. It was not until after the Civil War, when monopoly capitalism developed the power of the judiciary as a means of strengthening its own rule, that the courts began to exercise their usurped powers on a considerable scale. From 1860 to 1932, the court refused to recognize the right of Congress to enact laws in 60 cases. At no stage, however, did it wield its autocratic powers with the vigor it did in 1935-36 when it rendered 12 decisions against Congress.
This development was of the most far-reaching importance for the future of American democracy. It meant that five reactionary lawyers, constituting themselves as a majority of the Supreme Court, arrogated the right to pass on all reform laws and to nullify the will of the people. At the present stage of American political development this autocratic exercise of power can be correctly described as fascist in tendency. By means of its usurped power, a majority of the court can, by judicial fiat, frustrate the proceses of even capitalist democracy. Here is one of the specifically indigenous forms in which the growing fascist tendencies of American big business was manifested.
But an even more obvious expression of the increasingly fascist temper of American reaction was the wholesale use of violence against workers and farmers. In the three years from 1933 to 1935 inclusive, state troops were sent against strikers and demonstrating workers and farmers at least 60 times. In 1934, 49 workers and farmers were killed by soldiers, police or armed mobs of vigilantes. In 1935, 39 were killed. Countless thousands were wounded with bullets, clubbed, beaten, tear-gassed, maimed. Thousands of others were arrested and jailed on trumped up charges for exercising their elementary democratic rights to free speech and assembly. In 1935 alone, the International Labor Defense estimates, there were nearly 18,000 recorded cases of arrests of workers and farmers who participated in strikes and unemployment and other demonstrations.
A crop of criminal syndicalism and sedition cases, unparalleled in recent years -- wrote the American Civil Liberties Union -- marked the drive of the reactionaries against demonstrations of the unemployed and organization of the workers in the left wing unions. Criminal anarchy, criminal syndicalism and sedition laws were invoked in Arkansas, California, Illinois, Iowa, Oregon, and in Georgia an insurrection statute was used in the same way.
Besides this "legal" use of violence was the extra-legal terror exercised by vigilantes and other gangs of fascist terrorists. In 1934, 1935, and 1936, armed terrorist groups cropped up in various parts of the country, organized and financed by employers and operating with the tacit, and in some cases, with the open consent of the police and other officials. These gangs -- composed, on the one hand, of underworld criminals, and on the other, of the "best people" in their communities -- were the shock troops of American fascism. They constitute the counterpart, even if in embryonic form, of Hitler's stormtroopers in Germany. They raided workers headquarters, kidnapped and beat labor organizers, intimidated recalcitrant officials -- all for the greater profit and glory of big capital.
Anti-working-class violence reached its highest pitch during and immediately after the San Francisco general strike in the summer of 1934. The strike, which was the most effective action of its kind in American history, struck fear among the capitalist bourbons throughout the country. The more panicky "princes of privilege" had visions of immanent revolution. The more realistic saw that the victory of the San Francisco marine workers would lead to a resurgence of the labor movement and encourage trade union organization in every industry. Both were determined to crush labor by every possible means.
The reign of terror inaugurated in California after the San Francisco strike approximated fascist rule. "Law and order," civil liberties and democratic rights were violently brushed aside by the police and fascist mobsters -- all in the name of law and order.
Literally thousands -- said one writer in the Nation, describing the situation in California in the summer of 1934 -- including many noncombatants have been gassed, had their skulls cracked, been trampled upon and shot. Countless homes have been entered. Private property has been ruthlessly destroyed.
The class-conscious workers of California are living in terror today. Except in Los Angeles their movement has been driven underground. They are listed, photographed, studied, harassed, and constantly attacked by their enemies. They have no protectors, no newspapers in which to appeal to public opinion. When they attempt to win better working conditions, they are met with special clubs four feet long, gas bombs, iron pipes, billies and bullets.
In Imperial Valley during the strikes this year, police, private armies and vigilantes committed every crime in the calendar upon their victims, who comprised the migratory workers and their allies, labor organizers, lawyers of the Civil Liberties Union, and the International Labor Defense. Hundreds were arrested; gas, water, and fire were used to terrorize the unfortunates, some of whom were working for 35 cents a day... Stockades held prisoners of war; chain gangs were improvised to punish them; all roads were blockaded against either food or moral aid for the victims...
In Northern California the red hunt was hardly a hunt. It was a war... Encouraged by statements of Governor Merriam, Mayor Rossi and Police Chief Quinn, the minor mayors of the Bay cities, vigilantes under many names -- "safety committees," Minute Men, White Guards, Silver Shirts, Ku Klux Klanners -- roamed the highways at will, acting in much the same manner as their German prototypes, the Brown Shirts.
The fascist reign of terror in California had its counterpart in many other communities throughout the country where workers and farmers struck or demonstrated for better conditions and for their democratic rights.
Sixteen workers were shot to death in the national textile strike in September, 1934. Seven were massacred by deputies at Honea Path, South Carolina; three in Trion, Georgia; others were killed in Greenville, South Carolina, Saylesville and Woonsocket, Rhode Island. Six were bayoneted by state troops in High Point, North Carolina. In Georgia, Governor Talmadge, an outspoken admirer of Hitler and a supporter of the American Liberty League, established concentration camps modeled after those of Nazi Germany.
In scattered areas throughout the country -- particularly in the South, in California, in coal and iron towns -- local regimes which were fascist in character, if not in name, were set up to prevent trade union organization. In these regions, the right of free speech, press and assemblage, the right to organize, strike and picket were completely abolished. Citizens enjoyed only such right as the employers and their private armies and mobsters were willing to permit -- and these were few indeed.
Such fascist fever spots had long existed in many company towns and sections of the South, but now the disease spread to many additional communities and assumed more virulent forms.
This was especially true in the southern plantation areas, where the vestiges of chattel slavery and the tradition of the violent suppression the Negroes created favorable conditions for the growth of the fascist germ.
Describing the suppression of the sharecroppers' strike in Arkansas in the autumn of 1935, an organizer for the Southern Tenant Farmers Union wrote in the New York Post:
At night deputy sheriffs and masked men ride the roads, on the lookout for secret meetings of the union... Beatings are frequent and killings are not uncommon. Planters even organized a fascist band, wearing green shirts and carrying the swastika as its symbol. .. Hundreds of our members have been beaten and scores of families have been driven from their homes by terror... At least ten of our members have been killed.
And so it went, on and on throughout the country, and this was during the heady day of the New Deal presided over by the saintly "leftist" FDR. Most people today are completely unaware of these aspects of the New Deal, and many people believe that things were somehow better then than they are now. Nothing could be farther from the truth.
While there are many parallels between then and now, for those who refused to stay in their "place," things were not only worse then, they could be and often were deadly.
The peril of fascism was all too real.