James P. Cannon


The Lynching Wave and American Fascism

(9 December 1933)

Written: December 1933
Source: The Militant, Vol. VI No. 54, 9 December 1933, p. 4.
Original bound volumes of The Militant and microfilm provided by the Holt Labor Library, San Francisco, California.
Transcription\HTML Markup: Andrew Pollack.
Proofread: Einde O’Callaghan (February 2016).

In the outbreak of lynchings that swept the country, striking at three widely separated sections with the fury of a hurricane, an old American custom was repeated with some new and distinctive features which are of exceptional significance. In the present situation such orgies of mob violence as those in California, Maryland, and Missouri do not fit into the old pattern.

Mob murder in itself is no novelty in the United States. In the South, as everybody knows, it is an established institution for the repression of the Negroes, operating all the time as an extralegal supplement to the regular court procedure. In the North, also, lynching has been known before, but it is not “recognized – here as it is in the South and, except in isolated instances, has appeared only in connection with social disturbance.

The frenzied lynching bees of the recent days, however, had their scene in the northern part of the country, or on its border; white men as well as Negroes were victims; there was not one single lynching but three, and those in rapid succession; and the happenings precipitated a hysterical public controversy over the issue, with Governor Rolph of California and other prominent people, including – God save the mark! – a New York preacher (who later recanted), openly condoning the bestial actions of the mob. It is clear that last week’s lynchings had special features of their own; they represent a new and somewhat different phenomenon, and they arose from a special combination of causes.

* * * * * *

The three lynchings did not occur merely because of popular revulsion at some crime of a particularly shocking nature. The California kidnapping was the match that set off the explosions of unrestrained moronic hysteria and violence, but the explosive material itself for some kind of an eruption was already there. It consists of the unrest, and dissatisfaction of the people, primarily the ruined petty-bourgeois elements, their uncertainty and their sense of frustration, which charge the social atmosphere like a Leyden jar.

All of this has been accumulating during the crisis years. It presses for outlet and may readily find it in strange, irrational, and violent ways. The lynching hysteria which has swept the country derives from the same source as the fanatical million-headed following of Father Coughlin, the demagogue priest. The real author is the social devastation wrought by the crisis.

The material out of which fascist gangs, anti-Semitism, religious frenzies, and moronic lynching mobs all may be set in motion is at hand in the social tension which produced three lynchings within a week. The material for the rapid development of a revolutionary labor movement is there also in the bitter discontent of the workers, but a leading force capable of organizing it is so far lacking. The disintegration of the communist movement aids the one-sided expression of the general mass of social discontent in a fascist direction.

The popular support received by Governor Rolph, in his stand as the champion of the mob, is a significant indication of the extent to which public imagination was stirred by the San Jose lynching, and even of the widespread vicarious participation in it. Rolph, a demagogue of the first water, appears in this instance more as the reflector of petty-bourgeois mass prejudice and hysteria than as the authentic spokesman of the decisive sections of the ruling class. There is no foundation for the contention (Daily Worker, November 30) that the mob violence was deliberately unleashed at the command of the big capitalists and that Rolph speaks in their name. They will come to such a policy in time, of this there is no room for doubt, but it is no part of their design at the present moment. Just the contrary, as an examination of the facts will show.

* * * * * *

The inflammatory utterances of Governor Rolph aroused a storm of controversy and revealed a division of opinion. This division, and its nature, must be perceived and understood, not ignored. The lynching governor was “showered with telegrams of approval.” But, on the other hand, the capitalist press, led by the big New York dailies, and an imposing committee of “citizens” headed by ex-President Hoover, condemned him. The real present sentiment of the big capitalists was indubitably expressed by them. And for good reasons.

Unrestrained mob action is a dangerous fire to play with under the present conditions. The leading exploiters will not lightly instigate it. They do not feel the need of it yet. Mob hysteria might easily express itself in a different direction under the slightest incitement. As long as the rulers feel themselves secured by the legal processes of repression they will not deliberately encourage extralegal mob actions. That is why the most authoritative representatives of capital frowned on Rolph’s condonement of them.

The psychological factors for a rapid transformation of the social conflict out of the realm of legality and parliamentarism into that of open mass violence, and for the lightning like emergence of a revolutionary movement on the one side and a fascist movement on the other, have an exceptional strength in America; they are rooted in the tradition of the country as well as in the conditions of the present. The American people of all classes, by and large, have very little regard for “law and order” when it stands in the way of something they really want to do. (The almost universal disregard for the prohibition law is an interesting illustration of this attitude on a wide scale.)

American labor history has been written in struggle, violent and bloody. Many a strike took the form of armed conflict; few pass without violent clashes. On the other hand, the American capitalists never hesitated to go outside the bounds of their own legality when the exigencies of the class struggle required it. Frank Little was killed by lynchers. So also was Wesley Everest and many other labor militants. The radical workers were dragooned into support of the war or bludgeoned into silence by unofficial lynching mobs which supplemented the legal compulsion of the state authority. A good half or more of the brutal violence against the workers in strikes is the work of unofficial thugs and gunmen. When the two main classes in this country get ready to settle accounts, and long before they come to the final account, the “legal” framework of the struggle will have been shattered to bits.

* * * * * *

The reservoir of mass violence in America is a huge one, and the events of the past week have demonstrated how easily it can be tapped, and with what unbridled fury it can rage. The mob of humans turned into wild beasts who mutilated and killed the two helpless prisoners at San Jose, and that far bigger mob of vicarious participants who applauded them from afar, have presented a spectacle of menacing implications to the labor movement.

The same mobs can be directed against the workers. They are the material out of which the murderous bands of fascism can be organized when the big exploiters feel the need of them. The working class had every reason to take alarm at the spread of lynching and to raise a mighty protest against every official condonement of it. But the bare appeal from mob violence to ordered legal processes – the sum and substance of liberal and Socialist agitation – does not touch the heart of the issue. The problem is rooted in the social conditions of class society just as the whole oppressive system of class justice is. The same class forces which administer the “law” need only to sense the danger to their rule in order to organize and bribe the dregs of society and hurl them against the workers with unrestrained violence. To rely solely on capitalist legal procedure in the struggle against lynching and other forms of illegal mass violence is to clear the way for the latter. Under different circumstances the force behind each is the same.

* * * * * *

The movement of fascism does not come into existence at the command of the capitalists. It arises out of the conditions created by capitalism at a certain stage of its disintegration as a social and economic system. Its troops, for the greater part, are the petty-bourgeois elements, ruined and driven to frenzy by the crisis. The movement is aimed, at its inception, against big capital as well as against the labor movement. The former take over the movement and hurl it against the workers if the latter do not show sufficient strength to crush the movement of fascism and gain the support of the petty-bourgeois masses for their revolutionary program.

These fundamental considerations should be kept in mind in connection with the various manifestations of incipient fascism in America. The revolutionary labor movement and the movement of fascism both grow out of the same social conditions. The devastating crisis of American capitalism has prepared the soil for both. What is most alarming in the present developments is the increasing number of signs that the restless and dissatisfied petty-bourgeois elements are finding expression in various ways which, taken together, lead in the direction of a fascist movement. The lynching orgy of the past week was undoubtedly such a sign – one of many. Of the revolutionary countermovement among the masses there is hardly a trace.

For this one-sided development, which is fraught with so much danger to the working class, the conditions themselves are not to blame. All the objective requisites for the speedy development of a revolutionary movement in the working class have been maturing under the enormous pressure of the crisis. What is lacking to organize it and set it on its feet is a revolutionary communist party. The disintegration brought into the movement by Stalinism has taken a fearful toll. Stalinism has destroyed the Communist Party. We must build a new one without delay. This is the imperative warning sounded again in the events of the past week.

Last updated on 8 February 2016