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Researching the right

We can out-organize the far-right, but only if we’re serious about understanding them

Social Movements

Members of the Proud Boys march in Washington, DC, December 12, 2020. Photo by Elvert Barnes/Flickr.

The last few years have seen a sharp uptick in discussions on the North American left about right-wing movements. This makes sense. Across the globe, we’ve seen far-right forces gaining access to state power as well as aggressively mobilizing in the streets. Some of the most striking examples have been in Hungary, Brazil, India, and the United States, but there have been many other instances, including in the Canadian context.

Many of us, as activists and organizers, are hungry for analysis that can help us understand right-wing movements more clearly and counter them more effectively. But with fast-moving events, a high velocity media landscape, and a lot of fear, it’s tempting to look for guidance from those who are quickest to offer commentaries, even when they don’t have much previous knowledge about the far-right. A good number of these commentators are liberal journalists and academics who are primarily concerned with what they understand as “extremism” or “populism”—they see right-wing movements as aberrations rather than as manifestations of ruling relations. As a result, their analyses do not provide us with the tools we need to build meaningful opposition.

Thankfully, there’s no need for any of us to pretend to be experts about the right or to rely on weak analyses. Instead, we can learn from rigorous researchers, grounded in the left, who have been closely following right-wing organizing in North America for years and, in some cases, decades. I look especially to the team at Political Research Associates, Daryle Lamont Jenkins at One People’s Project, Matthew Lyons and other contributors at Three Way Fight, and journalists Shane Burley and Jason Wilson. There’s also much we can learn from left-wing academic scholarship on movements of the right, including the work of Kathleen Blee, Sara Diamond, Mike King, Joe Lowndes, Daniel Martinez HoSang, Alexandra Minna Stern, and Alexander Reid Ross.

These researchers are part of a long history of courageous and principled people who have tracked right-wing organizing and violence, and worked to challenge far-right formations. In North America, this history has its origins in Black-led anti-lynching campaigns, perhaps most famously associated with Ida B. Wells, and militant working-class anti-fascist groups of the 1920s and 1930s, frequently connected to larger left-wing organizations. During the 1980s and 1990s, the John Brown Anti-Klan Committee and then Anti-Racist Action coordinated across regions to carry on this work. Today there are anti-fascist and anti-racist groups across the continent that diligently track far-right activities. It’s Going Down and the Torch Network regularly share a lot of that grassroots research.

While there is a lot for us to learn from this work, I want to highlight three points that we miss if we only read quick takes. First, these researchers encourage us to take right-wing movements seriously as movements rather than dismissing them as elite-led “astroturf” initiatives or cult-like “hate” groups. During the 1990s, Sara Diamond was quite critical of liberal groups that portrayed Christian Right organizations as corporate fronts. “It is no great surprise,” she writes in her book Not By Politics Alone, “that rich people finance institutions that will preserve the status quo. Yet the centrist watchdog groups opposed to the Christian Right play a game of ‘exposing’ the names of the Right’s rich donors as if that somehow explains the success of a social movement. It does not.” In her own research, Diamond focused on the activities, cultures, and politics—the movement infrastructure—that sustained these organizations.

In a more recent elaboration, Matthew Lyons notes, “The people who join these movements are not especially crazy or irrational or stupid or fanatical or mindless puppets—although unfortunately these are all common stereotypes. Right-wing movements attract and keep supporters because they speak to people’s hopes, fears, grievances, and human struggles. They may do that in a twisted and ugly way, but they do it—or they don’t last.” In short, we shouldn’t let our political criticisms of right-wing movements cloud our ability to understand the actual organizing work they do.

Second, these researchers challenge simplistic conceptions of the far-right as homogeneous or unified, revealing competing and sometimes contradictory tendencies. During the explosion of far-right activity in 2017, Lyons documented the substantial differences in gender ideology between the Christian Right and the alt-right, underlining the latter’s embrace of more aggressive forms of misogyny. Writing in the aftermath of the January 6 Capitol takeover, Joe Lowndes and Daniel Martinez HoSang examined “the disavowal of openly racist language” by sections of the far-right and the ways in which Trump’s base “has expanded to include more rather than fewer voters of color.”

A key site of tension within right-wing movements is in their orientations toward dominant power structures. Researchers distinguish between right-wing politics that are “oppositional” (seeking to overthrow the existing order) versus “system-loyal” (aiming to preserve it or return it to some imagined past). These two broad orientations, Lyons explains, “may clash with each other or work together, and people can move from system-loyalty to oppositional politics or vice versa, the same way that leftists can move between reformism and a revolutionary stance.” What is clear is that right-wing movements are dynamic, politically diverse, and internally contentious—they are not monolithic.

Finally, these researchers offer us a way to orient ourselves, on the radical left, as we confront right-wing movements. After all, we are not system-loyal either; we have no commitment to preserving the current organization and administration of power in our society. But unlike the oppositional right, our fight is for collective liberation. We seek to overturn ruling relations and institutions that produce domination, exploitation, and oppression. We aim to create a world in which everyone—not just the rich, not just white people, not just people with citizenship status—can flourish.

In order to do this, we need to be real about our opponents. We have to challenge, as Three Way Fight argues, “both the established capitalist order and an insurgent or even revolutionary right, while recognizing that these opponents are also in conflict with each other.” This means going beyond caricatures and quips. We can out-organize the far-right, but only if we’re serious about understanding them.

Chris Dixon is a long-time activist, writer, and educator. Originally from Alaska, he lives in Ottawa on unceded Algonquin territory, where he is a member of the Punch Up Collective. Find him online at writingwithmovements.com.

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