I decided to write this piece (“The Counter-Revolution’s Long March: The American Right’s Shift from Primitive to Advanced Leninism”) due to the quick dismissals and condemnations following former Trump advisor Steve Bannon’s (alleged) remarks on Lenin. What was as disturbing as the mainstream’s rehashing of stale Cold War misinformation was the Left’s insistence that right-wingers cannot appropriate anything of substance from Marxists.
Having seen firsthand, throughout Islamism’s rise to power in Turkey, how Islamists very carefully studied left-wing texts and movements, I already knew this to be patently false. As I have shown in my work on Islamism, the Right matures through appropriating revolutionary ideas and cadres. It is not a coincidence that one of Erdoğan’s top advisers is a prominent activist and economist who spent decades in Maoist (and subsequently New Left) organizations and intellectual circles. My colleague Dylan Riley has shown the same to be the case for interwar Italy.
The article, then, had a twofold task: clearing up some fatal misunderstandings about Lenin; and demonstrating, with textual evidence, that the American Right, too, feeds off of Marxist traditions.
As I state in the article, “Leninism’s crux is neither authoritarianism nor zealotry, but the formulation of a long-term strategy in hostile terrain.” Lenin did have authoritarian tendencies, which influenced some structures of the Soviet Union. These tendencies, however, have been taken out of context in much of the historiography. Their causal significance is poorly understood. Worse, focusing exclusively on Lenin’s authoritarianism prevents a holistic, meaningful analysis of which parts of his strategic trajectory have world-historical significance.
Restoring a historically accurate understanding of Lenin (and then putting his strategies to use in a 21st century, advanced capitalist context) is of course a huge undertaking, which can’t be exhausted by a single scholar (let alone one article). So, that part of my text should be read as a call for further research and theorization.
I ran into a different kind of difficulty regarding the article’s second task: tracing the American Right’s interactions with Marxism. The Right is ashamed of its learning from Marxism and has done everything in its power to hide the tracks. Its Leninism is shrouded in secrecy.
Luckily, one confidential memo has been unearthed, decades after its first circulation among the far right. Murray Rothbard, the incisive if somewhat unsophisticated author of this text, is the unintended offspring of revolutionary Marxism, as his biography shows. Frequently using Lenin’s own language, Rothbard emphasized in his writings the following duties for the far right: 1) postsectarian elimination, incorporation, and disciplining of collaborationists and hardliners; 2) (semisecretive) cadre-raising; and 3) infiltration of institutions. The strategies he has laid out remain effective: Rothbard’s strategy texts are still assigned in some of the most influential right-wing think tanks (many of them Koch-led).
Other students of the Bolsheviks have been much more effective than Rothbard himself in updating Rothbard’s strategies for the American context of the 1980s onwards. They have also marginalized Rothbard and his primitive Leninism. These Machiavellians have openly called their strategy “Leninist,” even though it might better be defined as “neo-Gramscianism with a strong Leninist streak.” They added the following strategies to Rothbard’s: 1) (“hegemonic”) coalition-building; 2) a calculated and gradual weakening of the enemy; and 3) the creation of a parallel universe of material interests.
Although we can tell this much from their texts, we do not know which (if any) Marxists these post-Rothbardians have read to reinterpret Lenin in this way. With the primary exception of Grover Norquist, whose infatuation with Lenin (and other revolutionaries) is documented in my article, we have less information about the sources of the other figures involved. We know even less about when, how, and to what degree Bannon encountered and internalized this strategic legacy. If American, European, and Middle Eastern history is any guide, though, we can comfortably say he won’t be the last.
The far right’s post-Bannon dispersal and recent reorganization
When this article was finalized, the radical right was in disarray, and remains so to an extent. Both internal strife and liberal/establishment pressure had culminated in the unravelling of the neo-fascist organizations and their bridges to the White House. The remaining elements were angry and active, but they lacked a direction.
Since I published the article, rightwing mobilization has had three major thrusts forward:
- The Virginia gun rally, which was less racist than it appeared. It can be characterized as mostly anti-bureaucratic and right-libertarian.
- Anti-lockdown protests, a prime example of anti-expert populism. We should also notice here how some of the former ground of the libertarian left is sliding from under its feet. This might not have come as a shock in the US, but it was pretty confounding in Europe, where the first grumblings against the lockdown had come from radical leftist luminaries of the continent (such as Agamben). When many leftists joined in the anti-lockdown protests in Germany and elsewhere, they had no idea they would be marginalized (to the extent they were) by the radical right, who now “owns” this anti-expert structure of feelings. It is crucial to note that the DeVos family, and many other usual mainstream Republican suspects, have funded these protests.
- The ongoing breakthrough: the anti-Black Lives Matter (henceforth BLM) protests.
In response to the uprising against police violence at the end of May 2020, far rightists throughout the country have mobilized in counter-protests. There are also grounded suspicions that some of them have infiltrated the BLM contingents to take them in a violent direction. It is said that a significant amount of the “destruction of property” (especially of small businesses owned by Blacks), which has been officially attributed to the Antifa, was carried out by these extremists.
But the publicly right-wing protests are much more striking than these possible conspiratorial involvements. During the first week of June, armed militias populated streets of small towns throughout the country, allegedly preparing for Antifa’s takeover of their towns. (Such Antifa incursion did not happen, and the counter-protestors threatened and intimidated local progressives instead of the out-of-county and out-of-state militants, against which they were purportedly mobilizing). Others acted as lone wolves, for instance by driving vehicles into crowds of demonstrators. In at least one town, police forces publicly endorsed these counter-protests.
Alongside these alarming counter-protests, several politicians and journalists have boisterously and theatrically called for the violent repression of the BLM movement, as by circulating recordings of themselves with rifles in hand. Although militia was mobilized during the first two waves too, it had not converged with law enforcement, politicians, and journalists to this degree.
The first two waves of protest reproduced the individualized (at best networked) structure of the American radical right, which still sharply differentiates it from the European (much more organized) radical right. The “Bannonite” push for organization that occurred during the 2016 presidential campaign, and then during Trump’s first year, has all but dissipated. This structure further allows the ease with which DeVos-type money mobilizes (and determines the agenda of) radical rightists, preventing them from straying too much from the Republican establishment’s ideology and interests.
Nevertheless, the third wave of protest, which we are still in the middle of, could indicate some movement from the top-down, manipulative mobilization of individuals and networks to the flourishing of organized efforts (though it is too early to tell if a national organization will follow from this). There is, however, no indication that even these moves could lead to the ideological and policy break with the establishment that Bannon and likeminded far rightists have been hoping and pushing for.
What should be underlined regarding all of these protests and further right-wing organization is that whatever remains of the alt-right risks losing its “alt”-ness. These three protest waves are not out of line with entrenched Republicanism. In that sense, the alt-right is (once again) becoming subservient to the “establishment” that it rails against. Nevertheless, it has been successful in sharpening the most visceral, violent, and racist aspects of this very establishment.
The first two post-Bannon protest waves exemplify the Right’s reversion to “Leninism” in the worst sense: neither an imitation of the historical Lenin’s strategy, nor its updated version, but the Cold War’s bastardized version of Leninism: expert cadres hiding behind (now “think tank” and “family foundation”) walls and manipulating masses to get out on the streets and fight for liberty. The updated Leninism the Right had been working towards is a much more dangerous version (but is indeed one step closer to an authentic Leninism): Bannon did not simply seek to manipulate and mobilize the masses, but organize them.
There are some indications that the BLM protests have energized the Right so much that the bottom-up organizational push might be stronger than in the cases of the gun rallies and the anti-lockdown protests. All of this suggests that (just like in the interwar years) anti-Left sentiments are a much better organizing ground for the extreme right when compared to anti-state and anti-expert emotions, even when the case is the somewhat idiosyncratic (i.e. relatively more libertarian) American Right.
Between neoliberal implosion and state capitalism
These growing organizations’ relationship to established sources of Republican funding and organization will determine their impact on American society (beyond the questions of guns, public health, police violence, and race). The radical right has two (potentially, but not necessarily, contradictory) directions it can move in: i) Deepening neoliberalism while further racializing it; ii) Building national state capitalism.
The second route appeared to be out of the picture after Bannon’s dismissal, but taking this appearance as fact would be missing that it left many traces (as can be seen in tariff wars). The first trend, however, is so strong that it prevents the Trump administration even from taking the most basic Keynesian, democratic stands that would both alleviate general suffering during the pandemic, and prevent an immediate race war.
If Bannon had stayed in government, the American system could have become much more racialized in a structural way (by organizing the white working class as the unshakeable and productive base of an emergent state capitalism), rather than haphazardly mobilizing racial resentment for short term purposes (such as keeping the bureaucracy off of the back of big business and racially provoking the base with an eye on the upcoming presidential elections).
This creates a dilemma. On the one hand, Bannon’s liquidation was a blessing in more than one way. He would have not only ushered in an even more repressive regime, but also stolen much of the thunder of the Left (by implementing state-driven infrastructural investment and other pro-labor policies, which establishment Democrats are far from willing and able to imagine and implement). On the other hand, the obtuseness of a non-Bannonite Trump regime has ushered in outdated types of resistance to state spending and public initiatives, which harm not only the Left and its constituencies, but the overall health of society under the present conditions.
As the Left is by no means ready to replace the existing system any time soon (and also given the Democrats’ lack of capacity to reform capitalism), the collapse of capitalism brings about neither socialism nor social democracy (or, for that matter, a truly organized fascism), but a brutal regime of unsystematic plunder and death.
In sum, there are two fundamental axes along which we need to keep following the further mobilization of the far right: is the far right moving from Republican-manipulated networks to an organization in its own right? Is it formulating a social vision of its own, which might conflict with the plundering instincts of the shortsighted business families who now hold the reins? So far, Trumpism’s mass organizational and ideological thrusts have been restricted to election years. It will likely remain that way, but some dynamics might change especially as the Left mobilizes further.
Cihan Tuğal is Professor of Sociology at the University of California, Berkeley
This article is based on Cihan Tuğal, “The Counter-Revolution’s Long March: The American Right’s Shift from Primitive to Advanced Leninism”Critical SociologyVolume: 46 issue: 3, page(s): 343-358.
Image: 2020 VCDL Lobby Day, Richmond, Virginia, Wikimedia Commons