That’s Not “How Fascism Works”

Madeleine Freeman

March 7, 2021

Jason Stanley’s book How Fascism Works shows the pitfalls of liberals’ approach to fascism.

Donald Trump’s election in 2016 was a watershed moment in the national and international arena, one that marked a new step in the accelerated decline and crisis of the U.S. empire after 2008. Trump’s popularity and the support he found in sectors of capital signaled, from the right, a growing rejection of the traditional neoliberal leaders of U.S. capitalism who had led the United States into a multipronged crisis from which it could not fully recover. Internationally, the U.S. faced the decline of its imperialist hegemony and challenges from growing powers like China; nationally, it faced growing inequality and discontent from sectors of the working class and “middle class” whose living conditions had been severely degraded while President Obama bailed out banks and corporations. Trump, with his unabashed individualism and promises to “Make America Great Again,” gave a right-wing populist voice to a certain sector of the disaffected petit bourgeoisie — mostly white, mostly located outside the biggest cities, and more than ready to find scapegoats among the Right’s traditional boogeymen: migrants, marginalized communities, and leftists.

The chaos in the political and economic spheres naturally had its expression in the ideological apparatus of the U.S. state. Liberal theorists and academics scrambled to make sense of Trump’s rise and the rejection of the United States’ traditional leaders while clinging to their view of the United States as a liberal democracy that could mitigate class tensions. They fumbled to explain how Hillary Clinton could be outvoted by a right-wing populist who spewed racist and xenophobic hatred at every turn, who in rhetoric and deed eschewed the two-faced “political correctness” of the liberal establishment. They called Trump a “fascist” and a would-be dictator intent on gaining power by destroying democracy. Guides targeted at the “concerned citizen” who wanted to “protect against tyranny” found large audiences, such as Timothy Snyder’s On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century. Such liberal propaganda attempted to restore faith in the undemocratic institutions and social-economic relationships that had given rise to Trump in the first place.

Released in 2018, Jason Stanley’s How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them was a smash hit across universities and liberal media. Stanley offers liberalism’s answer to how the world’s “greatest democracy” could possibly give rise to a figure like Trump and how authoritarian right-wing politicians are gaining power around the world. For those wondering just how bad things can get, How Fascism Works warns against the advance of full-fledged fascism in the United States and calls for concerned citizens to guard against the normalization of Trump’s right-wing politics and to defend democratic norms.

Rereleased in paperback in 2020 at the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic and just before the presidential elections, Stanley’s book argues that the phenomena he articulated in 2018 has only intensified across the world and particularly in the U.S. during Trump’s presidency. He provides a liberal philosophical justification for the “lesser evil” logic that positioned Trump and the Republican Party on the side of fascist authoritarianism and Joe Biden and the Democratic Party (though he his never mentioned by name) squarely on the side of democracy and freedom.

By Stanley’s own definition of propaganda, as a political tool that “uses the language of virtuous ideals to unite people behind otherwise objectionable ends,” How Fascism Works is a compelling piece of liberal propaganda. It paints a vote against Trump and the relegitimization of fundamentally racist and exploitative U.S. political institutions as the only rational conclusion for those concerned by the rise of right-wing movements across the world. Using the same appeals to the liberal values of “equality” and “empathy” that Biden used on the campaign trail, Stanley argues that we must reaffirm our commitment to the very traditional democratic institutions and socioeconomic relationships that gave rise to Trump in the first place and have ensured the exploitation and oppression of the vast majority for centuries.

Comparing contemporary right-wing movements in the U.S., Myanmar, Hungary, and Russia to textbook examples of fascism like Nazi Germany and Mussolini’s Italy, Stanley attempts to universalize a series of fascist “tactics” across particular national circumstances, explaining how politicians exploit racism and anxiety over changing social conditions to attack democratic values and secure political power. In the wake of the storming of the Capitol on January 6 and the second failed attempt to impeach Trump, Stanley continues to make the rounds in the media, warning citizens to be vigilant for the ever-present danger of fascist politics and “make a permanent democratic commitment” to reforming U.S. institutions in order to protect against the rise of the Far Right.

Though Trump is out of office, Stanley’s theories are still relevant as an ideological means of relegitimizing the neoliberal world order that Biden’s presidency represents and defusing potential challenges to Biden’s government from below. Stanley correctly points to the rise of right-wing movements across the world and the real threat they pose to the safety and autonomy of marginalized communities. But in elevating every instance of right-wing politics to “fascism” in one form or another, Stanley creates a constant threat of “fascism” that will always justify the “lesser evil” of bourgeois politicians with slightly friendlier masks.

In other words, by labeling as “fascist” the mechanisms of the bourgeois state that are working exactly as they are supposed to, Stanley mischaracterizes not only “how fascism works” but also what fascism is. He positions fascism as the opposite of “democracy” in the abstract and relegates this dichotomy to the realm of ideology. But in doing so, Stanley misses something essential: fascism and bourgeois democracy are not “neutral” regimes, devoid of class content. They are both mechanisms by which the capitalist class tries to maintain its grip on the means of production and keep the working class and oppressed in line.

Totalitarianism, Democracy, and “Power”

The heart of Stanley’s contribution to the liberal discourse around “fascism” is his distinction between fascist regimes and “fascist politics.” The former is the fully developed political phenomenon that is constituted by “ultranationalism of some variety (ethnic, religious, cultural), with the nation represented in the person of an authoritarian leader who speaks on its behalf.” The latter is a broad range of authoritarian tactics employed “as a mechanism to achieve power” in a particular state, from anti-intellectualism and sexual anxiety to appeals to a mythic past. Putting the regimes of Trump and leaders like Polish president Andrzej Duda on the same level, Stanley identifies much of the xenophobic, racist, sexist, and otherwise bigoted rhetoric and policies of right-wing politicians around the world as “fascist.”

For example, he identifies the promulgation of conspiracy theories at the national political level, such as QAnon in the United States or “anti-Soros” campaigns in Hungary, as a tactic that would-be fascist dictators use to gain power and motivate reactionary legislation. These politicians employ an all-out assault on truth — against both science and the bourgeois world order — to paint themselves as defenders against assaults on “traditional” (usually a euphemism for “reactionary” or “bigoted”) social structures.

In essence, on Stanley’s account, fascism is a politics of division, one that, contrary to liberal ideals of empathy and pluralism, exploits a dominant group’s fear of being usurped by ethnic, racial, or religious “others,” in the service of consolidating and maintaining a single figure’s hold on power. While fascist politics may not always lead to fascist regimes, Stanley concludes that the roots of fascism run deep and are an ever-present danger to bourgeois democratic societies. Indeed, he claims that fascist politics enjoys a long-standing place in the U.S. political system, from Jim Crow to mass incarceration and deportations.

Employing the classic distinction between totalitarianism and democracy as the two dominant political forces in history, Stanley ahistorically identifies the concrete phenomenon of fascism as the antithesis to bourgeois democracy and its supposed ideals of “freedom” and “equality.” Though he taps into the very real phenomenon of right-wing populism across the world — embodied in regimes like that of Trump in the U.S., Bolsonaro in Brazil, and Modi in India — he relegates the source of these movements and the fight against them to the sphere of ideology, a battle between reaction and hate on one side and liberalism and freedom on the other.

But this is a false dichotomy. Liberal bourgeois politicians certainly don’t have a monopoly on using “liberty” to get what they want. Fascists and their leaders have also historically used the rhetoric of “freedom” and an opposition to “tyranny” in the abstract as a way of gaining and holding onto power — we can see this clearly in the programs of contemporary neo-Nazi groups or other proto-fascist organizations. Certainly Hitler and Mussolini appealed to “freedom” as they concurrently destroyed every democratic structure fought for by working and oppressed people. This is exactly the limitation of Stanley’s view: there is no universal “Freedom.”

As Lenin famously pointed out, when we talk about freedom, we must always ask, “For whom? To do what?” Fascists say they want freedom for a select racial, ethnic, or religious minority, but in the service of negating the freedom of the vast majority of workers and oppressed groups and giving capitalists the greatest possible freedom. Liberals, in contrast, say they want freedom for a diverse set of identities, but this is also in the service of giving capitalists the greatest possible freedom, just under a different set of historical conditions.

Stanley underestimates the central role that crisis in the political and economic sphere of global capitalism plays in bringing fascism about as a way to check working class movements and revolutionary processes. Fascism is not the negation of democracy in the abstract, but the temporary suppression of bourgeois democracy as a means of restabilizing capitalism and keeping political and economic power firmly in the hands of the bourgeois class.

But Stanley does not focus on full-fledged fascist regimes; he focuses instead on the precursors to fascism that he sees in contemporary liberal democracies, which allows him to draw a clear line in the sand between liberalism and fascism. By identifying elements of “fascist politics” at play in bourgeois democratic states, Stanley can paint these phenomena as aberrations of democracy in the abstract, as opposed to the direct products of democracy in the service of capitalism.

This limitation is especially clear when it comes to his view of fascism in the U.S. context, which misidentifies the systematic racism that is baked into the very foundation of U.S. “democracy” and U.S. capitalism with aberrations of “fascist politics” by reactionary individuals vying for power.

Racism and Fascism

Racism and bigotry are central to Stanley’s conception of how fascism works. It’s perhaps the most appealing, though perhaps ultimately the most misguided, component of his view of “fascist politics.” Stanley correctly identifies racism as a driving force in right-wing ideology and politics; in a sense, his use of the word “fascism” to describe systematized racism is alluring because it evokes a level of urgency in the danger that right-wing phenomena present to historically oppressed and marginalized communities. But again, he counterposes these fascist politics to the ideal “democratic state” that is neutral and can be reformed to work in the interests of all people. Rather than seeing racism as a concrete, material phenomenon weaponized to serve class interests, Stanley reduces the root cause of racism to empty notions of “hierarchy” and “authoritarianism.” In the context of the United States, in taking this view he vastly underestimates the role that anti-Black racism and xenophobia played in the founding of U.S. democracy and the development of the United States as a global imperialist power, as well as how the contemporary U.S. state and both its political parties benefit from racism and the hyperexploitation of communities of color. Structural racism is not the result of a few bad policies by racist politicians: it is baked into the very foundation of U.S. capitalism.

In talking about the United States, Stanley frequently draws on the work of Black radicals, from W. E. B. DuBois to Angela Davis, tying their views on the structural nature of racism to a picture of U.S. fascism (and of course erasing the most anti-capitalist aspects of their politics in the process). He discusses how the Reconstruction era after the Civil War reconfigured the Black working class, newly freed from slavery, to continue to serve Southern and Northern capitalist interests. He talks directly about the mass incarceration of Black people in the U.S. prison system. But in calling these explicitly “fascist” or proto-fascist phenomena, he explains racism solely as a means of “establish[ing] an us-versus-them dichotomy and reinforc[ing] pre existing hierarchical stereotypes” (169), rather than what they are: a way for capitalism to systematically exploit a huge swath of workers and pit the working class against itself.

In other words, he underestimates the deep connection between U.S. democracy and racism, and consequently, his view offers no hope to combat the latter. Racism was enabled by U.S. democracy, owing to its subservience to capitalist interests, which thrive on racism and bigotry of many kinds. For example, according to Stanley, the contemporary Republican Party, in its adaptation to the social phenomenon that gave rise to Trump, “employs these strategies with more and more frequency” (8), from politicians’ use of patriarchal stereotypes and historical revisionism to racist gerrymandering. But this isn’t fascism. This is bourgeois democracy working exactly as it is supposed to. And both Republicans and Democrats benefit from and perpetuate these practices and policies.

Ultimately, Stanley paints the democratic state as a neutral apparatus that is corrupted by racist policies, so his only solution to systemic racism is to reform institutions that are racist and rotten to their very core. In doing so, he erases how people of color and other marginalized identities are targeted by the bourgeois democratic state as a way of furthering the interests of capital. Racism isn’t the sole domain of fascism but a fundamental component of capitalism.

How Does Fascism Work?

Fascism is not, as Stanley views it, a reaction against the formal political “equality” and economic “inequality” engendered by liberal democracy. It is, rather, capitalism’s last-ditch effort to maintain its power when challenged by the working class. Fascism is not devoid of class character; contrary to Stanley’s account, fascism is not solely the result of a crazed dictator’s bid for power and domination for a chosen national, racial, or ethnic minority. As Trotsky explains in “How Mussolini Triumphed,” fascism occurs

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.

Fascism is an all-out attack on the institutions and organizations of the working class: in the 20th century, it took the form of racist, ethnic, and political genocide, exacerbating the divisions that capitalism creates among the working class in order to give capitalism more room to stabilize, if possible, against the movements of workers and oppressed groups. This was facilitated by the seizure of political power by a single-party regime and figurehead who would rule uncompromisingly in the service of national capitalist interests. One of the first things that the Nazis did after seizing power was to attack Germany’s long-standing workers’ organizations. They occupied union halls and arrested union leaders, and they replaced independent unions with the German Labor Front, which was controlled directly by the party and by capitalists.

Even if Stanley positions fascism as something wholly anathema to liberal democracy, he is forced to acknowledge that fascism targets working-class organizations, as is evident in his discussion of fascist politicians’ attacks on trade unions. But Stanley inverts this scheme, saying that the attack on the organizations of the working class are secondary to a dictator’s unquenchable lust for power.

He writes, “Fascist politicians understand the effectiveness of this solidarity to resisting divisive policies and therefore seek to dismantle unions. Despite its condemnation of ‘elites,’ fascist politics seeks to minimize the importance of class struggle” (171). Stanley maintains that fascism seeks to dismantle unions because they are “the chief mechanism [that] societies have found to bind people who differ along various dimensions. … According to fascist politics, unions must be smashed so that individual laborers are left to fend for themselves on the sea of global capitalism, ready to become dependent instead on a party of leader” (171). Stanley correctly identifies unions as a site of unity — though he relegates this site to the unity of all humanity in the abstract, as opposed to the unity of the working class — against the divisions that capitalism enforces between groups. But fascism does not just attack labor unions to cause havoc in the economic sphere to tie subjects closer to an all-powerful leader. Fascism targets unions to check the autonomy of the working class and to maneuver — with extreme violence and repression — better positions for national and ultimately global capitalism.

Fascism is not just a change in ideology that undermines human empathy. It is a different form of capitalism that has bearings on the economic relations of society. As Trotsky writes,

After fascism is victorious, finance capital directly and immediately gathers into its hands, as in a vise of steel, all the organs and institutions of sovereignty, the executive administrative, and educational powers of the state: the entire state apparatus together with the army, the municipalities, the universities, the schools, the press, the trade unions, and the co-operatives. When a state turns fascist, it does not mean only that the forms and methods of government are changed in accordance the patterns set by Mussolini — the changes in this sphere ultimately play a minor role — but it means first of all for the most part that the workers’ organizations are annihilated; that the proletariat is reduced to an amorphous state; and that a system of administration is created which penetrates deeply into the masses and which serves to frustrate the independent crystallization of the proletariat.

In other words, fascism is a reaction by the bourgeoisie to the self-organization and mobilization of the working class in the face of great crises in the economic, social, and political structure of capitalism. It is not the opposite of liberal democracy but a product of its failures to keep class antagonisms in check. Fascism is capitalism under another leader, one who puts the hold of corporations and business interests front and center in the operations of the state.

But fascism is an inherently unstable form of regime, and it’s not the one that capitalists prefer. As Trotsky famously said, “The big bourgeoisie likes fascism as little as a man with aching molars likes to have his teeth pulled.”

A Warning to the Bourgeoisie

Stanley, like other liberal theorists, suggests that the way for the masses to fight the Right is by fighting to uphold bourgeois institutions and participating in bourgeois democracy. But this is the essential liberal mistake: the ballot box is not the “great equalizer” of the working class and the bourgeoisie; it is how the bourgeoisie gets the working class to agree to the terms and conditions of its own oppression and to ignore its own interests. In fact, trust in bourgeois institutions is the very thing that could pave the way for future fascists to come to power.

Ultimately, despite his appeals to ordinary citizens to resist fascism, to the social movements that have “succeeded in the project of eliciting empathy,” and the importance of a liberal education that cultivates empathy, Stanley’s real “solution” to the problem of fascism is much more straightforward: capitalism must mitigate the class antagonisms that give rise to the social base of fascism because “stark economic inequality creates conditions richly conducive to fascist demagoguery” (185); the vast majority of people who are exploited by these contradictions are relegated to “maintain[ing] a sense of common humanity” (193) and allying with their oppressors against the constant fascist threat.

In the last chapter of his book, Stanley goes beyond (if only implicitly) his liberal-idealist framework and acknowledges what actually gives rise to fascism: class struggle. He writes, “There are genuine tensions in a society that has a democratic political system and an economy based on private enterprises that function under principles of hierarchy.” Though it verges on gross understatement, Stanley’s statement contains a kernel of truth: capitalist society creates its own crises and contradictions; the reaction against these crises, and capitalism’s efforts to resolve them, create all sorts of reactionary and progressive phenomena. Of course, Stanley sees the form of the political system as completely divorced from the economic system in which it operates, so his solution is confined to trying to mitigate these inequalities through legislation and state regulation.

Stanley goes on in the epilogue to say that we are living in a time of multiple crises, along economic, political, and ecological fissures. He claims that this will inevitably give rise to class struggle and uprisings against inequality and injustice. “We will soon find ourselves confronted by movements of disadvantaged people across borders that dwarf those of previous eras,” he writes. His use of “we” is telling: the ruling class must find a way to deal with the crises that shake the stability of the capitalist system and the states that reproduce and protect it. It’s a warning to the ruling class that the crises of capitalism will cause uprisings of the working class and oppressed, uprisings that will in turn unleash the forces of fascist reaction. Of course, it will be the capitalist class that releases this rage of the disaffected petit bourgeoisie against the working class, but this is something to be avoided, according liberals like Stanley who adhere to the illusion of class conciliation. Though he does not lay out an entire solution to the problem of the rise of fascism, he implies that in addition to educating ourselves on our common humanity, governments must fund social programs and drastically reduce economic inequality.

An Alternate Path to Fight Fascism

It is not simply a matter of definitions to differentiate between Stanley’s vision of fascism and how fascism actually works based on a materialist analysis. Rather, it is crucial to understanding where Trump and right-wing movements across the world fit into a larger picture of capitalist crisis and the tasks ahead in fighting them. The program that arises out of Stanley’s apparently “neutral” liberal framework is one of class conciliation, a framework that has no hope of actually fighting fascism were it to arise. By calling everything fascism in order to guard against the “normalization” of such policies, Stanley represents fascism as a constant threat that can be fought only by uniting behind the institutions of bourgeois democracy. Simply put, if we take up this framework, we are forced to misidentify the actual threats that face the working class from within bourgeois democracy and consequently who our allies are in fighting them.

Though Stanley’s book offers a quintessentially liberal framework, his logic is not one that the anti-capitalist Left is impervious to. In the wake of the degeneration of the USSR after the horrors of Stalinism, many left organizations took up the dichotomy of totalitarianism versus democracy underpinning How Fascism Works, abandoning an analysis of class relations that could actually identify fascism and provide an answer for how to fight it.

To fight the threats posed by growing right-wing movements across the world — even if they are not fascist — the working class and oppressed must unite their struggles against the capitalist system, which needs these divisions to survive. That means fighting racism, as well as the persecution of religious and ethnic minorities, with the full power of a working class that can throw a wrench into the workings of capitalist society and bring the forces of reaction to their knees. Such a fight necessitates the foundation of strong union movements led by the rank-and-file against the union bureaucracy and the self-organization of the working class to show that it has the power to fight in its own interests. It is possible that amid this fight capitalism may be forced to resort to fascism or elements of fascist repression to check the working class. We are not at that moment now, but if it comes to it, we must be clear-eyed about who our allies are and who they are not. The capitalist interests guiding liberal democracy allowed Hitler, Franco, Mussolini, and others to rise to power, just as it allows demagogues around the world to oppress and repress the vast majority of working and poor people in the current moment. Stanley might be right that fascism is always a possibility in capitalist society; the way to fight it is by ripping it out at its roots and expropriating the capitalist class, which would rather turn to the violence and hatred of the Right than give up its hold on society. The only way to fight fascism is with socialism — the united efforts of the working class and oppressed to ensure their liberation from capitalist domination.

Madeleine is a writer and video collaborator for Left Voice. She lives in New York.