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Irving Howe

What Are the Coughlinites Doing Now?

(January 1942)

From Labor Action, Vol. 6 No. 1, 5 January 1942, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

One of the most interesting results of the war in domestic political life has been, the reaction of the Coughlin movement. This native fascist organization, which reached a peak about three years ago only to subside into a comparatively routine existence in recent months, has been developing an extremely clever and dangerous line with regard to the War – a line which requires the wary attention of all workers.

The approach of the Coughlinites, until the entrance of America into the war, was patterned along the classical lines of fascist demagogy. Appealing primarily to the lower middle class elements of the population – those who had been hit hardest by the depression and who were most susceptible to reactionary prejudices – the Coughlinites combined a surface “radicalism” with a basically fascist program, as Hitler did. Coughlin spoke with bravado against the capitalists – or at least the Jewish capitalists – even though his program proposed the continuation of capitalism.

Coughlin mumbled something about a fair wage for workers, but showed himself an unceasing enemy of the trade union organizations, like the CIO, which the workers were building. Coughlin attempted to capitalize on the discontent that was arising in the country by harnessing it to the most despicable prejudices, such as anti-Semitism.

Recently, Coughlin’s major line of attack was on the war issue. He was the ideological inspirer of the fascist section of the America First Committee. Coughlin’s paper, Social Justice, carried pages of isolationist propaganda, liberally mixed with anti-Semitism. Isolationist Senators Nye, Wheeler and Clark were its heroes.

Reasons for Isolationism

The isolationist position of the Coughlin movement was motivated by several considerations. The most important were:

  1. The Coughlinite movement had not yet received the support of the major section of the American capitalist class, which was interventionist and which did not utilize the Coughlinites because it did not yet need a fascist movement to save its economic system. Accordingly, the Coughlinites received support only from some of the capitalists in whose interest it was not to enter the war against Germany. This, of course, is one of the reasons why the Coughlinites stagnated in recent year – the lack of a need, from the capitalist point of view, of calling up a fascist movement, left the Coughlinites without what must necessarily be their main financial and ideological support if they are to be the fascist movement of America.
  2. The Coughlinites reflected the opinion of that minor section of the American capitalist class that was in favor of appeasing Hitler in order to form a” world bloc of capitalist powers to fight against Russia. But the main enemy of American capitalism – as the overwhelming section of the American capitalists correctly realized – was Germany, and therefore the advice of Social Justice was not heeded.
  3. The Coughlinites were trying to develop mass support on an issue which would excite people – and the most important was the war issue. They adopted their violent isolationism as a means of attracting the tremendous latent anti-war sentiment that existed until the entry of America into the war. The purposes for which they were going to use this Sentiment were clearly fascist.

Not Like Wheeler and Taft

Now that the war is here, the Coughlinites have not abjectly surrendered to the Roosevelt Administration, as have Wheeler, Taft and other former isolationists.

Just as Lindbergh played a long chance in making an anti-Semitic speech which he knew would bring a shower of abuse on his head, but which he hoped would help pave the road to playing the role of America’s future Fuehrer; so the Coughlinites are now taking a long range perspective by voicing such an extremely critical attitude.

They ridicule the shift of the New York Daily News, which has resurrected Stephen Decatur’s slogan about “my country, right or wrong.” No, says Social Justice, we will support our country only when it is right, and not when it is wrong. The implication as to which case applies at present is plain.

Social Justice appears in its December! 22 issue with a sharp attack on the “war profiteers”; it attacks the “filthy internationalist gold-mongers,” the “motion picture artists living on fat salaries of $100,000 a year,” etc. The old fascist demagogic technique is apparent: develop a mumbo-jumbo, mixing in popular prejudices against movie actors’ high salaries with the popular prejudices against “gold-mongers.”

But Social Justice makes no attempt to explain to its readers the cause of the war. It makes no attempt to tie up the existence of capitalism with the outbreak of war, because it dares not do so; it is pledged to rescue capitalism.

Try to Exploit Legitimate Complaints

The Coughlinites are playing the game of keeping mum about their attitude toward the war itself, while demagogically attempting to exploit the legitimate complaints and distress which will undoubtedly arise among the people as the war proceeds.

It is necessary for the working class movement to keep a sharp eye on the Coughlinites. Those who really want to build a new and better world of socialist freedom must see to it that the fascist demagogues do not succeed in enticing the people with their false “radicalism.”

The fascists must constantly be exposed for what they are. It must be made clear that for all their fake criticism and attacks on the war-makers and profiteers, that they aid in maintaining the continued rule of the war-makers and profiteers because they stand for the retention of capitalism in its most vicious form.

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