“Public Safety” Minister Bill Blair has announced that the Canadian government will designate 4 white supremacist and fascist groups as terrorist entities, including the notorious band of thugs known as the Proud Boys. An additional 9 groups on the list are more in keeping with the priorities of the “War on Terror.” The Kashmir-based Hizb-ul-Mujahideen was included on the list, by way of a friendly gesture to the Modi government.
Section 83 of the Criminal Code that is being used here does not allow for the literal banning of an organization, but it does make it an offense to “provide or invite a person to provide, or make available property or financial or other related services” to a designated terrorist group, which enables the government to potentially freeze their assets. Obviously, this is designed to starve the targeted group of the resources needed to function. These powers are highly reminiscent of the infamous Section 98 of the Criminal Code that was used against the Communist Party and many unemployed workers’ organizations until it was repealed in 1936.
This initiative by the Trudeau government was taken following vigorous prodding by the social democratic New Democratic Party (NDP). NDP leader Jagmeet Singh began to apply pressure the day after the Capitol Hill riot, describing that event as “an act of domestic terrorism.” “The Proud Boys helped execute it,” he declared, “Their founder is Canadian. They operate in Canada, right now. And I am calling for them to be designated as a terrorist organization, immediately.” The NDP leadership clearly saw this initiative as a priority and circulated a petition calling for the government to take action against this group.
Before it became clear that the Trudeau Liberals would crack down on the Proud Boys, I suggested that “we should be very wary of relying on the state to legislate the threat of fascism away.” The fact that this initiative has now been taken at the insistence of the NDP, with its close links to the trade union movement, makes it all the more important to sound a note of warning.
I’d like to deal with 4 considerations that arise in this situation. First, we must acknowledge the very real and growing danger of fascist movements. Second, we have to look at the practical realities of dealing with the threat of fascist violence and avoid dogmatic inflexibility when it comes to calling on the authorities to act. Third, we must understand that the repressive powers of the state, however they are applied at a given moment, are a double-edged sword far more likely to be turned on working-class movements and the political left than directed at fascists and white supremacists. Finally, and critically, we must place our emphasis on working-class mass action against fascism, as opposed to dangerous false hopes that the state will be our protector. Let me take each of these in turn.
1. The Fascist Threat Is Real and Growing
The cast of characters arrested so far in connection to the Capitol Hill attack included a core of shock troops of the far right. The events of January 6, moreover, most definitely did not come out of the blue. An ever enboldened far right, inspired and enabled by Donald Trump, was part of the political equation well before its forces were unleashed in reaction to their hero’s thwarted electoral efforts. The lethal conduct of Kyle Rittenhouse is but one horrible indication of the violent capacities of the emerging fascist movement and the threat this poses to those who challenge racial injustice or who take to the streets around popular demands. This growing danger from the right is by no means confined to the US. For example, a comparable threat has emerged in Canada.
Some liberals may reduce the concept of free speech to an abstraction but there can be no serious socialist case for the “right” of fascists to spread their hatred and organize into a force that can deliver racist violence and attack working class organizations. Fascism is not a legitimate point of view but a means of gathering together the human products of a society in crisis as reactionary shock troops. They must be prevented from forming into a cohesive force. They must be denied the public square at all costs.
Most importantly, we are now living in a period of interwoven crises that are producing the conditions for a very serious intensification of the fascist danger. In the US, overtly fascist movements may not have attained a mass character, but they are interwoven with a very large rightward-moving and dangerously volatile segment of the population. The pandemic-induced economic downturn and the “economic scarring” that will long outlive the virus will intensify a process that the Biden restoration of the neoliberal centre will not contain. The conditions under which a fascist movement can gain ground are present and growing ever more dangerous. It is not a question to be taken lightly.
2. Sometimes We Must Call on the Authorities to Act
In the harsh realities in which we must function, there are times when demands need to be put before the police, courts, and legislators with regard to fascist and racist criminality. In January of 2017, a right-wing killer entered the Islamic Cultural Centre of Quebec City, a mosque in the Sainte-Foy neighbourhood, and opened fire on those gathered within it. A total of 6 people lost their lives and 6 more were wounded. Members of the Muslim community had tried to get the police to respond to the “climate of hatred” they faced when it spilled over into criminal acts. In 2014, Islamophobic stickers were put on 3 mosques in the City and, in 2016, a pig’s head was left outside the Cultural Centre. The same year, members of the fascist La Meute group provocatively dropped off business cards at halal grocery stores. The lethal attack took place in a context where a sense of impunity had been allowed to take root among the racist thugs harassing Muslim people in Quebec City.
In such a situation, it would certainly be necessary to support the call from the Muslim community for the police to deal with criminal threats and attacks coming from the far right. Moreover, there are situations where calls for the state to shut down fascist groups are entirely correct. Last October, a Greek court ruled that the fascist Golden Dawn is a criminal organization and convicted 68 of its members of crimes up to and including murder. The thousands who took to the streets to celebrate were fully justified in doing so. This great result, a blow to the far right internationally, was won through a determined working-class struggle against the fascists and by ongoing resistance to the brutal austerity agenda that created the despairing conditions that Golden Dawn fed upon. No one sat back and hoped the state would make the far-right threat go away.
3. Never Leave It to the Capitalist State
There are particular dangers involved in the Trudeau government’s crackdown on the Proud Boys that need to be considered. The concept of “terrorism” has been constructed and acted upon by the Canadian state along lines that are deeply reactionary and profoundly racist. Police and courts have used the “terrorism” label to persecute Muslims and intimidate targeted communities. Toronto’s Tamil community know well how this legislation has been used. Politicians and the media have used the “terrorist” label to fan the flames of xenophobia.
Section 83 of the Criminal Code, though it may be directed at the far right at this moment, has the most chilling implications for working-class movements and the left more broadly. It can be used against any group, in or outside of Canada, “that has as one of its purposes or activities facilitating or carrying out any terrorist activity.” There are an alarmingly large and varied number of ways to engage in “terrorist activity” to the satisfaction of a zealous cop or prosecutor. Provided it can be established that someone has created “a serious risk to the health or safety of the public or any segment of the public” and that this was done “for a political, religious or ideological purpose,” they may be guilty of a terrorist act. “Property damage” and “serious interference with or serious disruption of an essential service, facility or system” may also be treated as terrorism, provided they can be linked to a risk to public health and safety. It’s not hard to see how the resistance of workers or communities under attack could unleash these repressive powers.
Blair is an appropriate choice when it comes to wielding this club. In 2010, while he headed up the Toronto Police Service, his officers engaged in a systematic and large-scale denial of democratic rights, directed against those protesting a gathering of the G20 leaders in the city. The crackdown they engaged in involved “using excessive force during the largest mass arrests in Canadian history…and locking up more than 1100 people in gulag-like conditions that contravened Canadian law and police policy.”
In fairness to Blair, he didn’t invent heavy-handed and politically motivated police methods in Toronto. In June 2000, his predecessor, Julian Fantino, unleashed riot police and mounted units against a protest challenging growing homelessness at the Ontario Legislature. It was called by the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP) with which I was an organizer at the time. When the crowd resisted the police attacks, a major confrontation ensued. Fantino told the media that we had engaged in “domestic terrorism.” There were dozens of arrests and some of us faced “public order” criminal charges that had not been used for decades.
The following year, 19 OCAP members were arrested following a protest at the Ontario finance minister’s office, when we “evicted” him by throwing his furniture out on the street. Two weeks after my arrest, I was denied bail and returned to jail following a court hearing in which the prosecutor described our action as “an act of terrorism” and insisted that my release would constitute a “danger to the public.” When I suggest that the label of “terrorist” is one that can be used against working-class and left movements, it is not an abstract or fanciful consideration.
The state will only make limited use of repressive measures against the right. A threat to fundamental capitalist interests is going to come from the left, and that’s where the fire will be directed for the most part. However, the nasty shock of the volatile and erratic Trump drawing on the most extreme elements to attack the governing institutions has alarmed the leading capitalists and created a situation where action is being taken against the far right.
In Canada, this development has found its echo in the use of anti-terrorism legislation against the Proud Boys. That these powers have been deployed domestically, however vile and reprehensible the immediate target may be, is deeply concerning, and we can’t be naïve about the same methods being used the threaten working-class rights.
The capitalist state is not reducible to its political leaders and governing institutions. Its security forces have their own priorities and agendas, and the ranks of those institutions are deeply imbued with sympathy for the far right. The FBI may be rounding up rightists who went too far but that repressive agency has anything but clean hands when it comes to white supremacy. Blair, a former police chief, may find it expedient to issue a dictate against the Proud Boys, but the force he used to run is full of officers who have much in common with the out of favor fascists and who would be much happier smashing a picket line or attacking a Black Lives Matter protest.
This kind of police bias ensures that fascist criminality is tolerated while the formal legal rights of those who challenge them are disregarded or violated. Police will ensure the “free speech” of the far right is vigorously protected but will look the other way when those challenging racial injustice are attacked by fascist thugs. From the level of legislative enactment down to the policing of street protests, the state is not on our side and will not in any consistent or serious fashion protect us from fascist attack.
4. Working-Class Action Is the Weapon Against Fascism
In contrast to the weak and dangerous perspective of looking to the capitalist state as a protector, there is another approach to dealing with fascism that has a long and proud tradition. That, of course, is mass working-class action and the mobilization of communities threatened by their racism and violence to stop the fascists. In order to grow as a political force, fascism must claim the streets, as it uses violence and intimidation to prevent those it targets from rallying against it. Accordingly, it must be overwhelmed and dispersed by a mass mobilization it can’t match.
The Battle of Cable Street in London in 1936 saw one of the most famous and dramatic examples of challenging fascism with mass action. Blackshirts, protected by 7000 police, tried to march through the Jewish communities of the East End of the city. Roughly 100,000 working class people blocked their path and turned them back at Cable Street. Just 3 years earlier, with “swastika clubs” springing up across the city, Jewish people and allies confronted the fascists decisively in what became known as the “Christie Pits Riot.” Reaching from that period up to the present day, there is a rich history of driving fascist movements from the streets and the need to intensify this form of struggle is growing ever more important.
It might be useful to consider a hugely unlikely scenario. Let’s imagine that, instead of asking the Liberals to put their repressive and racist anti-terrorism legislation to unconventional use, NDP leader Singh had issued a call for mass action against the Proud Boys and other fascist hatemongers. Let us envisage a situation where the NDP organized meetings across Canada, in union halls and community centers, to form anti-fascist organizing committees that could put a force on the streets that would make it impossible for the far right to rally and that demoralized and dispersed them. How much more would have been achieved by building the solidarity and unity of a diverse and powerful working class than by looking to the Liberals and the capitalist state? However, since the NDP leaders won’t take this course and initiate such a movement, it’s up to socialists and anti-racists to build it.
In this crisis-ridden period, the politics of the neoliberal mainstream, represented by politicians like Joe Biden and Justin Trudeau, can’t contain the growth of the far right because they seek to perpetuate the system and worsening conditions of life that feed that growth. We can’t stop fascism by relying on capitalist politicians and their dubious and dangerous legal protections, but we also can’t stop it unless we challenge the system from which it springs forth. Trump miscalculated when he unleashed the Proud Boys because the capitalist class is not yet ready to call on the services of such people. Conditions of worsening crisis and rising working-class resistance could change that, and a fascist street army, with plenty of friends in high places, might well emerge.
Fascism expresses the historical bankruptcy of capitalism. Its hate-filled ideology reflects the crisis of the system, and its forces are the warped human products of that crisis. Its defeat will not be achieved with appeals to the institutions of the state but through a working-class mobilization that is as anti-capitalist as it is anti-fascist.