Feb 6 1934/Jan 6 2021
What Do The Two Events Really Have In Common?
Shortly after January 6, I exchanged a few emails with Robert Paxton, author of The Anatomy of Fascism, asking him his opinion about what happened. A long time skeptic of the idea that Trump was a fascist phenomenon, the events of January 6 appeared to have changed his mind. In particular, he made the comparison—made by others in subsequent days—between the January 6 riots and the attempt by far-right leagues and military veterans to storm the Chamber of Deputies in Paris on February 6 1934.
This comparison appealed to me immediately, because I’ve thought for a long time the French Third Republic was a more interesting and productive place to look for parallels to the present than the Weimar Republic or post-World War I Italy. First of all, because the history is less well known in the United States, so its details and particularities wouldn’t be quickly subject to caricature. Second, because France had a much longer democratic and republican culture and tradition, which the far-right had to contend with or co-opt. And third, partly because of that tradition, there is a great deal of ambiguity and debate over whether the term “fascist” is even an appropriate name for the French far right, just as there is now in the United States.
A detailed look at the political crises of the Third Republic was one of the reasons I started this blog and to that end I’ve written a series on the Dreyfus Affair as well as the crisis of the 1930s culminating in the Feb 6 1934 riots. I’m considering continuing the series through the Popular Front years and up to Vichy, but I thought it might be worthwhile to pause and make an explicit comparison between the present day and the Third Republic, something I have only implied so far.
So, just how similar were Feb 6 1934 and Jan 6 2021? Starting somewhat superficially, it has to be admitted that there is an eerie parallelism: both involve a far-right mob with many military veterans attempting to storm the legislative branch that was in the process of recognizing a new administration.
The crowds in both cases included a loose coalition of organizations of the Right belonging to various strains of far-right ideological concerns. On Feb 6, the riots were orchestrated largely by the anti-parliamentary leagues—Solidarité Française, Action Française, Jeunesse Patriotes, Croix de Feu to name a few. These groups ranged from officially “republican” in ideology—appeals to the demonstrators included many references to 1789, just as the American far right makes symbolic gestures to 1776—to monarchist; from being openly anti-semitic and xenophobic, to welcoming Jews and attempting to recruit North African members. Some of them represented extremely old traditions of the Right: Action Française was monarchist and Catholic, while other groups were clearly trying to emulate the newer style and organizational methods of the fascist movements in Europe. Of course, the “republicanism” professed by the far-right was significantly different from that of the center-left: they wished to replace the negotiation and bargaining of “special interests” in the parliamentary system with a strong executive lead by a providential leader who would unite and “save” France.
On Jan 6 2021, there was also a diverse range of far-right groups—Proud Boys, Oath Keepers, Three Percenters for example—that represented older or newer strains of the American far right, from the longstanding rural militia movement to the representatives of neo-Nazi groups to more recent attempts to organize urban street-fighting cadre. The crowds in both cases were quite “diverse,” but became united in purpose in the course of the rioting. In both cases, very few of the organizations or members of the crowd would openly call themselves “fascist.” And in both cases, a hardcore of organized activists engaged in propaganda appeals that called out a broader section of the sympathetic population.
Traditions of Conspiracy Thinking
In both cases, the mobs were animated in the belief in a conspiracy. On Feb 6 1934, the crowd was convinced that Serge Stavisky, a Jewish conman with ties to high-ranking members of the Radical party (roughly, the center-left liberals, the Democrats), was murdered to cover up a wide-ranging scandal that implicated the entire establishment (think Jeffrey Epstein—it did not seem to matter to the demonstrators that prominent figures on the Right were also associated with Stavisky.) The incoming Radical Prime Minister Daladier dismissed the prefect of the Paris police in order to give the appearance of reorganizing a corrupt police force, but this particular police officer, Jean Chiappe, was Red-baiting skull-cracker beloved on the Right. Since the Radical government did not have an outright majority and relied on the votes of the Socialist party to maintain power, the Right presented this as a prelude to a Marxist coup and the press had published scurrilous and irresponsible theories about the machinations of the government in the month leading up to the riots.
So in both cases, the rioters believed themselves to be preventing an illegitimate takeover of the state by the far-left. In the case of Jan 6 2021, the animating impulse of the mob was the “stolen election” myth pushed by Trump, his surrogates and sections of the conservative media. In both cases, there was a pre-existing culture of conspiratorial thought on the far-right: going back to the formation of the Third Republic in the nineteenth century, the French far-right indulged in beliefs that Jews and/or Freemasons and Protestants, in league with Socialists and Radicals, dominated the parliamentary republic and twisted it to its purposes. They interpreted the frustrations, inadequacies, and failures of republican governance as evidence of the presence of cabals and conspiracies. These group also shared the modern grassroots American Right’s distrust and frustration with the mainstream of conservative elected officials, whom they believed had become corrupted by participation in the parliamentary state.
The Bolshevik revolution and the growing presence of Socialists and Communist deputies in the parliament now added to the paranoia the possibility of a Moscow-directed takeover. Of course, the American Right has a long history of florid conspiratorial and paranoid interpretations of politics that goes back at least to the Cold War and the John Birch Society and has present avatars in Great Replacement, QAnon, and Deep State theories, all of which fueled the Jan 6 events. In summary, both events were the results of a political tradition that developed a mythos about the corruption, illegitimacy, and wholly malign-nature of both their opponents and the institutions of state.
In the run-up to the Feb 6 riots, the right-wing created an atmosphere of hysteria that “the Left” was about to strike using Senegalese and Moroccan colonial troops that would supposedly have fewer compunctions shooting down Frenchmen. There were also rumors that the Daladier government was preparing secret dossiers to “purge” right-wingers. This all certainly resembles the atmosphere on the Right prior to Jan 6, where it was believed that the mass slaughter or jailing of Republicans was being contemplated by the Biden administration. Both conspiratorial mentalities combined a “defensive” and “offensive” stance: the right was trying to actively root out corruption in the state, but also supposedly trying prevent their own destruction at the hand of their enemies.
Both mobs had significant support from the political establishment—even within the chambers they were besieging. The supposedly anti-parliamentary movements in France had ties with right-wing deputies and their leaders often ran for elections and won. When news that the police had opened fire on the demonstrators reached the chamber, right-wing deputies accused the government of murder. The chamber descended into pandemonium, with scuffles breaking out between members. It’s well-known that the Jan 6 rioters received significant encouragement from members of Congress, many of whom publicly subscribed the stolen election myth, not to mention the President. In both cases, the outsider or “insurrectionary” nature of the mob is belied by deep ties of association, sympathy, and opportunity to established centers of political power.
Demographics and Society
The social context and composition of both mobs are worth considering. Research on the Capitol Hill mob found it to have representatives of all classes, but “surprisingly professional,” with some 40 percent of the crowd being “white collar” including professionals and “business owners.” Compare this to a little less than a quarter of the total American workforce being employed in “Management, professional, and related occupations” according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The unemployed made up a relatively small amount of the crowd at around 9 percent. The demographics of the fascist and far right leagues in France in the 1930s are somewhat similar. They were composed of all classes, but attracted large numbers from the middle and lower middle classes: shopkeepers, engineers, lawyers, white collar employees, small and medium business owners etc.
Americans are sometimes not very good at understanding social class, which should not be simply identified with present financial circumstances. While the middle class was overrepresented in the Jan 6 crowd, many of them experienced financial difficulties, including bankruptcies, foreclosures, and tax liens. This is interesting to compare to the Great Depression as it manifested itself in France: more mildly than in Great Britain, Germany or the United States and where it was not the working class but “shopkeepers, artisans, peasants and small and medium businesses that ‘suffered the greatest proportionate losses of income.”1 (“Peasants” sounds very lowly indeed to American ears, but it should be remembered in the case of France that these people often owned their own land and equipment.) These threatened and declining middling-sorts, once the backbone of the Radicals, were alienated and frightened by the Socialist movement and the Left, but were attracted to far right organizations.
Veterans played a prominent role in both mobs. According to NPR, 1 in 5 defendants in Capitol invasion cases served in the military. The veterans group Union Nationale des Combattants (UNC) was among the first organizations to call for a mass demonstration on Feb 6 1934. (It should be noted that their chairman had to resign because of his own ties to Serge Stavisky.) Between 5,000 and 8,000 members of the UNC, along with a smaller contingent of Communist veterans, were present in the estimated crowd of 40,000, but they mostly refrained from the most violent episodes, which were undertaken by the hardcore fighters of the leagues. There was also broad sympathy in the vast veterans movement for anti-parliamentarism and authoritarianism if not outright participation in league activities. But these were all veterans of the Great War and had a much more prominent place in French society and politics as a result of their sheer numbers and the bloody sacrifices they had to make in that war.
Scale and Organization
Research on Jan 6 estimates the crowd that attacked the grounds of the Capitol to be around 10,000, with 500 to 800 actually entering the Capitol building. This was a smaller contingent of the rally on the National Mall that may have had some 30,000 attendees. Estimates of the crowd on Feb 6 point to about 40,000 rioters, with some contemporary accounts saying there had been hundreds of thousands. The amount of demonstrators that violently confronted the police and attempted to enter the Palais-Bourbon may have been smaller than the total on the scene. William Shirer, in his eye-witness accounts of Feb 6 1934, has some 10,000 rioters attempting to storm the bridge on the Place de la Concorde.
While research on Jan 6 2021 shows that the vast majority of arrested rioters had no pre-existing ties to paramilitary organizations, the crowd on Feb 6 1934 seems to have been more tightly organized, made up of members of either formal veterans groups or the far-right leagues that attracted sympathizers. While the organized veterans movement was large, numbering in the high hundreds of thousands, it was not uniformly right-wing or even political. The leagues were smaller but still had significant numbers. Before Feb 6, the Colonel De La Rocque’s Croix de Feu had some 35,000 members, the Solidarite Française had between 20,000 and 100,000 members, and Action Française’s street-fighting organization probably also numbered in the tens-of-thousands. Taken together, the various anti-parliamentary leagues maybe numbered some 350,000 total members of different levels of commitment and activation. These may not sound like huge numbers for a democratic nation of millions, but for some perspective the French Communist Party had probably around 35,000 card-carrying members at the time (but a much larger number of sympathetic workers.) Compare this to the Oath Keepers, which claims to have 35,000 members but probably has between 5,000 to 7,000 members and the Proud Boys, which has maybe about the same.
The hard-core cadre that could be relied upon for public demonstrations and street violence was significantly smaller than the total group, but they were highly mobilized: the leagues liked to put on public displays and marches like their fascist cousins in Germany and Italy and would also engage in street violence, which was especially prominent in the run up to Feb 6 1934. The crowds on Feb 6 were Parisian— they had no need for AirBnBs or Hotels—they melted back into their quartiers to fight another day. The sense of ever-present disorder and menace from the far right was probably a great deal more palpable in the France of the 1930s, when scuffles between Socialist workers and leaguers could be a nightly event. While the protesters on Jan 6 were markedly more urban and suburban than rural, they have not made themselves felt as a constant presence in the cities of America in the same way before or after the riots.
I think some qualifications are required here. The supposed lack of mass organization and mobilization is often given as a reason by more ‘materialist’ analysts for the major difference between the extreme right of the 1930s and today. It’s worth noting that this ignores some major differences in the material determinants of social relations between the middle of the 20th century and today. First of all, in order to mobilize mass political movements at that time a great deal of labor-intensive organization was required: e.g. the writing, printing, and distribution of propaganda leaflets and posters, recurrent mass rallies to impress opponents and potential recruits, the paramilitary discipline of cadre to maintain structure and energy as well as contact between disparate parts of the country, etc. These all have their analogs in the industrial organization of factories and the military organization of World War I, a conflict many of these political actors were veterans of. This was the world of the telegram, the newspaper, the radio, the revolver, and the mass rally, and not that of social media, cable news, and the over-the-counter AR-15. In the 21st, century far less energy is required to activate the masses or to terrorize them. Social media has not totally replaced the social and political importance of mass rallies and party organization, but it certainly makes their assembly much more rapid and easy. While the Capitol Hill attackers were largely not members of paramilitary groups that have their origin in the 20th century, the biggest determinant of joining the insurrection turned out to be high use of social media.
The intensity of violence in the two riots was quite different. While 5 people died during the Jan 6 Capitol attack, on Feb 6 1934 14 rioters and one police officer were killed. But thousands were injured on both sides and there was massive, panicked gunfire on the part of the police and the use of calvary sabres by mounted gendarmes. Firehoses were used by police to beat back crowds, but modern, “less-lethal” crowd control methods had largely not been developed in the 1930s. The differential in violence can be perhaps explained also by the determination of the police to prevent the crowds from entering the grounds of the Palais-Bourbon and the mounting determination of the rioters to overcome the police, especially after they had been fired upon.
Political Consequences and Effects
What the two mobs were able to accomplish in the immediate term was significantly different. The Feb 6 1934 putsch-attempt, which failed to enter the legislative building and was driven back, had a much greater direct impact on the balance of power in France. This can be partly explained by the difference in political systems. The Third Republic was a parliamentary system: governments, bound together by coalitions, could form and collapse without the need for elections. In the face of ministerial resignations or votes of no-confidence, the President of the Republic would ask representatives of the parties to form a cabinet.
The Feb 6 rioters attacked parliament as the incoming Radical Prime Minister Daladier was attempting to invest his new cabinet. During the riots, the chamber was in session and he faced rolling votes of no-confidence, which he survived with Socialist support. The on-going disorder in the country to do with the Stavisky Affair brought down his predecessor Chautemps. Although he survived the night of Feb 6 1934, Daladier chose to resign a few days later rather than deal with the prospect of ongoing violence. The next prime minister, Doumergue, although he was a Radical, a Freemason, and a Protestant, established a “truce” government and satisfied many on the Right, especially with his elevation to the cabinet of Pierre Laval and Marshal Petain. The far-right leagues continued scattered violent demonstrations in the days after Feb 6 1934, but one of the largest, the Croix de Feu, explicitly called off its troops, its leader temporarily satisfied with the outcome. In the case of Feb 6 1934, the demonstrations actually affected the composition of government, bringing down a left-leaning government, and showed the Republican regime to be weakened and pliable. It also showed the complementarity and contiguity of extra-parliamentary and parliamentary politics.
Much like what is now being attempted by Trump and others with Ashli Babbitt, there was a concerted effort to make martyrs out of the fallen of Feb 6 1934 and make their memory a permanent part of the mythology of right-wing grievance with the parliamentary republic. There was a rise in polarization and radicalization on the right, but the biggest beneficiary was the group that, although organized on a paramilitary basis, largely refrained from violence on Feb 6: Colonel De La Rocque’s Croix de Feu, which grew from 35,000 to half a million members. After the banning of the leagues during the Popular Front, CF became a parliamentary party, Parti Social Français, which had a great deal of success with the Radical’s old constituencies of shopkeepers and artisans. With its two separate phases, CF/PSF did not ever combine parliamentary and extra-parliamentary dual-track of the fascist parties in Italy and Germany. French anti-parliamentary groups had their sympathizers and collaborators in parliament, but never a single party of direct representatives like Nazi or PNF party deputies.
Convinced a fascist takeover a la Germany or Italy was in the offing, the Left swung into furious action. The head of the S.F.I.O, Léon Blum reacted with measured alarm, writing in the Socialist newspaper Le Populaire, “I do not believe myself to be among those who have an exaggerated idea of the fascist danger in France, but the events of February 6 have revealed the existence of the danger; and they have revealed that the fascist organizations were strong enough and skillfully enough led, to divert and exploit to their profit…a troubled and aroused public opinion.”2 The Comité de vigilance des intellectuels antifascistes, C.V.I.A, was formed in the ensuing days by a group of concerned left-leaning members of the intelligentsia. The C.V.I.A. brought together Radicals, Socialists, and Communists under the umbrella of antifascist politics and represented the germ of the eventual Popular Front alliance of those parties.
The socialist-leaning CGT labor union called for a nationwide general strike on February 12. The Communists, eager to dissociate themselves after sending a contingent to the Feb 6 demonstration, called for their own rally on the 9th, which was brutally suppressed by police, who killed six of their members. The entire labor movement and Left then rallied to the CGT strike on the 12th and the Socialist and Communist parties marched together in Paris, with Blum appearing publicly with the leadership of the Communist party. With this, the first steps towards the Popular Front were taken.
Compared to the mass French labor movement and its Socialist and Communist political parties and notwithstanding the fevered imagination of the Right, there is really no mass, organized American Left to speak of and certainly not one capable of a show of force in response to January 6. Although the pandemic has to be part of the context, that did not prevent the earlier George Floyd protests. The fact of the matter is there was no mass democratic and left-wing demonstration against Jan 6 2021. The liberals most vocally outraged by the events of Jan 6 2021 are more likely to favor administrative and bureaucratic solutions to right-wing violence rather than view it as a political problem requiring mass mobilization to counter. The danger and character of the event itself is still a matter of dispute among left-wing intellectuals. It’s difficult to imagine an American equivalent of the Comité de vigilance des intellectuels antifascistes. But the French Left had just witnessed two fascist seizures of power in its neighboring countries and took the possibility very seriously.
There was also the strong historical tie between the French Left and the Republic dating back to the French Revolution. The idea of the Republic and its ethos of equality, liberty and fraternity still animated a protective impulse in the groups that viewed themselves as the heirs of the Revolution. The “defense of the Republic” and the practice of a “Left bloc” had been a concrete rallying principle for the French Left since the early crises of the Third Republic and that ideal is reflected throughout the speeches and appeals of Léon Blum from Feb 6 to the formation of the Popular Front, perhaps the last great example of that tradition. The French Left was able and willing to claim the Republic as its own.
The Questions of ‘Coup’ and ‘Fascism’
Although there was a dramatic response at the time to Feb 6 1934, the attitude of later French historians towards the event sounds an awful lot like contemporary takes on the lack of importance of Jan 6 2021 or it not having a specifically fascist character. The historian of the French right Rene Rémond wrote of Feb 6 that it was “not a putsch, barely a riot, just a street demonstration which history would have forgotten and which would soon have disappeared from collective memory if it had not taken a tragic turn.”3 This is related to what has been called the “immunity thesis,” that France’s longstanding democratic culture made it particularly resistant to fascism. Things that appear to be fascist or at least fascist-adjacent, like the Vichy regime, in fact were not: Rémond characterized Vichy, because of its conservatism, as “the very opposite of fascism.”4 These disagreements are profound and radical. While some historians insist that fascism was a minor and alien force in French politics, others, like Ze’ev Sternhell, contend that fascism, with it synthesis of left and right themes, was essentially the invention of French political culture and intellectuals, and can be found in essence even before the First World War. Certainly French far right street mobilization and ultranationalist ideology pre-date both Italian fascism and the war. More recent scholarship, like that of the historian Chris Millington, makes a point of exploring the “the porous boundaries between the conservative right and the extreme right” in this era.
Like on Jan 6 2021, very few of the groups and individuals involved in Feb 6 1934 would have called themselves “fascist” or “national socialist.” The French far right was careful to distance themselves from a “foreign” concept, particularly one associated with the hereditary enemy Germany. At other times. even the mainstream of the French Right viewed what was going in on Italy and Germany with curiosity and interest, especially during those regimes violent repressions of the Left. But when Hitler later turned his sights on the Right, the right-wing papers got a bit more squeamish about him.
Besides their obvious similarities of political style and goals, the far-right formations became “fascist” because of the Left. It was partly a political decision to label the leagues “fascist,” and associate them with the outrages in Italy and Germany. It both attacked their opponents and provided a common ground for cooperation on the Left with an anti-fascist coalition. The word had a resonance it did not have today: it suggested not the return of the repressed, but a living threat. The Left had just witnessed their international comrades jailed and murdered by fascists. They understood that the public professions of such parties could not be trusted. Anything that smelled even vaguely of fascism was enough to generate an energetic response. Even though it was the basis of political organization, the labeling of the leagues as “fascist” was also commonsensical: whatever the claims of the groups themselves, these were violent street movements that wanted to replace the government of petty politicians in a “national revolution” with a reactionary regime centered on a strong executive figure.
There seems to have been no contemporary debate on the Left whether the far right was fascist at the time—this is an academic question considered by historians later in the 20th century. This is quite unlike the situation in the contemporary United States where the theoretical question of the fascism of Trump and Jan 6 is a matter of interminable intellectual controversy. This is probably partly because of the domination of American intellectual life by academics for whom such classificatory debates are a raison d’etre, as well as the lack of a mass Socialist press to prescribe a political line. Léon Blum was not just a politician but also a respected man of letters, and his front page editorials in Le Populaire were not considered to be mere propaganda, but analysis worth reading across the political spectrum. In any case, there is no American Comite de vigilance des intellectuals antifascistes.
Related to the question of whether or not Feb 6 1934 and Jan 6 2021 was fascist is the question of whether or not either were “coups” or “attempted coups.” The first thing to note here is that no fascist party ever seized power in a coup. Rather they gradually improved their position through the dual-track of electoral politics and destabilizing extra-parliamentary violence. In both Italy and Germany, the fascist parties acceded to leadership through parliamentary wrangling and negotiations with conservative leaders very much in line with constitutional procedures and norms. After entering government, they were able to fully seize power, but the period of constitutional “normality” could last some time until a crisis arose could be taken advantage of. (Antonio Gramsci, one of the founders of the Italian Communist Party, was elected to parliament after Mussolini’s investiture as prime minister.) The notion of a “fascist coup” was partly the product of fascist propaganda and partly the result of a mistaken analysis by their opponent parties. Robert Paxton writes:
The myth of the Fascist coup in Italy also misled the German Left, and helped assure the fatal passivity of the German Socialist Party (SPD) and the German Communist Party (KPD) in late 1932 and early 1933. Both expected the Nazis to attempt a coup, though their analyses of the situation were otherwise totally different. For the SPD, the expected Nazi uprising would be their signal to act without bearing the onus of illegality, as they had successfully done with a general strike against the “Kapp Putsch” of 1920, when Freikorps units had tried to take over the government. Given that frame of mind, they never identified an opportune moment for counteraction against Hitler.5
The French Left arguably also misinterpreted Feb 6 1934 as such a “fascist coup” and tailored its responses, including the general strike of February 12, to counter it. But they also developed a more long-term political strategy that defeated the Right both in the streets and electorally, and instituted important social and economic reforms.
Although the Left at the time believed there was, there was not a centrally-orchestrated conspiracy to overthrow the parliamentary regime on Feb 6 1934. The extreme rhetoric of the press and the leagues, as well as the police violence that infuriated the crowd, exacerbated an already unstable situation, which then took on crisis proportions. Probably some figures on the Right would’ve been very happy to take advantage of this crisis and install themselves if the situation took an even more dire turn, but the police and military stayed loyal. For its part, the Right tried to present the protesters as apolitical veterans or ordinary Frenchmen angry with corruption who had been the victims of a police overreaction. The myth of Feb 6 and its martyrs became an important recruiting tool for the leagues and the Croix de Feu in particular, although it had shed the least blood, became the hegemonic far-right formation in the ensuing years.
In contrast, the events of Jan 6 2021 was far more centrally directed and encouraged by Trump. It was an ill-conceived and arguably impossible effort, but it was very clear who would benefit and take control if the situation spiraled. It appears now that Trump fully believed that this desperate expedient might work. This seems foolish in retrospect, but it’s possible to imagine a scenario where Trump had successfully subverted and coopted the military and federal police. In a sense, Jan 6 2021 was much closer to the fascist seizures of power in interwar Europe than Feb 6 1934 because it included the in-power government trying to foment a crisis that would permit it to seize absolute control. Mussolini and Hitler were able to skillfully lead and balance the various parts of their organized movements through these crises, but Trump had deficits of political skill, organization, and mass consent that probably doomed the attempt from the start.
On Feb 6 1934, public opinion—left, right, and center—was broadly disgusted with the parliamentary regime, and the far Right tried to situate themselves as the most legitimate representative of this popular anger. (This is also why the Communist party attempted to “get it in on the action of Feb 6.) The far-right bid was contested immediately by the mass mobilization of the Left. The danger of the event lay in the possibility of the far Right seizing democratic hegemony as the prime mouthpiece of the entire nation. The Right successfully convinced a substantial section of the population of the legitimacy and heroism of Feb 6, something that it has by and large failed to do in the United States about Jan 6. The election fraud myth was only believed by a relatively small, already-convinced ideological hard core. In a situation of broader legitimacy crisis and doubt, with a movement that had conquered a greater deal of popular support, a quite different outcome is possible to imagine. Still, there’s not a national consensus of the “meaning” of Jan 6 and there’s an ongoing ideological struggle to frame the event.
The dismissal of the fascist and coup-nature of both Feb 6 1934 and Jan 6 2021 relies heavily on a teleological interpretation of events: “It failed and was farcical therefore its absurd to call it a coup or a fascist movement.” It also relies on a caricatural notion of fascist seizures of power, being the result of a dramatic single event rather than a long process of destabilization, subversion of democracy, and opportunistic compromises and maneuvering within the establishment. Both events should not be read as reflecting the presence or absence of “essences” like fascism or a coup, but instead be understood as conjunctures that open up further political possibilities as well as dramatizations and crystallizations that cast light on on-going political and social crises. Whatever you want to call it, I think it’s clear from Jan 6 2021 that a major potential—if not a teleological end-point—of American right-wing politics is some kind of violent attempt on the democratic order.
Ultimately the Third Republic was not overthrown internally; it was conquered by a foreign enemy. But popular belief in the Republic was significantly eroded in the years between 1934 and 1940. Even though the leagues were banned under the Popular Front, their members were ready to staff and support Vichy when it came along. Although Feb 6 1934 was arguably self-defeating for the Right—it activated and then brought to power the Popular Front—the eventual failure and defeat of the Popular Front cowed the Left and the labor movement. One could also argue material contradictions troubled the Republic as much as a lack of “Republican spirit:” it was ultimately difficult to solve the demands of labor while maintaining the arms production necessary to defeat Germany. Perhaps in the United States there will be some kind of similar gordian knot of productive forces centering on climate change or pandemic recovery and the economy, which will require a decisive and creative solution to prevent a national collapse.
The myth of Feb 6 1934 provided coherence and a sense of esprit de corps to the French Right that persisted through the Popular Front years and into Vichy. Although the leagues were dissolved, many future Vichyistes understood it to be their baptism of fire and kept its memory alive. It’s unclear whether Jan 6 2021 will take on a similar symbolic significance for the broader American Right or if it will remain subcultural. The political significance of Jan 6 now rests on whether it can continue to serve an ideological purpose—for the Left or the Right. With its greater imaginative resources and talents for ideological struggle even amidst its popular decline, the Right so far has seized the initiative in shaping the memory of Jan 6 for its own ends.6
Re-Considering January 6—One Year Later
So what has happened in the year since January 6, 2021? Has the event signaled a qualitative change in American politics or is it an aberration? I have a few thoughts on this, but first I think we need to go back in time a little.
Above I wrote:
The sense of ever-present disorder and menace from the far right was probably a great deal more palpable in the France of the 1930s, when scuffles between Socialist workers and leaguers could be a nightly event. While the protesters on Jan 6 were markedly more urban and suburban than rural, they have not made themselves felt as a constant presence in the cities of America in the same way before or after the riots.
Back then I think I actually did not put the event into its entire context, which has to include the armed demonstrations at state capitols of militia groups protesting lockdown measures and the appearance of such groups either as vigilantes or agents provocateurs during the Black Lives Matter protests.
Since Jan 6, there has been some urban street mobilizations by the far right particularly on the West Coast, In Los Angeles, there’s been violent demonstrations by the Proud Boys over trans people being admitted to a spa in Koreatown and then against vaccine and mask mandates. In Portland, a regular site of such clashes, there’s been street fighting between Antifa and Proud Boys that included an exchange of gunfire.
Far right groups like the Proud Boys have also switched to a “localist” strategy, appearing at school boards and town councils. This also has an electoral component:
Away from the national spotlight, the Proud Boys instead quietly shifted attention to local chapters, some members and researchers said. In small communities — usually suburbs or small towns with populations of tens of thousands — its followers have tried to expand membership by taking on local causes. That way, they said, the group can amass more supporters in time to influence next year’s midterm elections.
“The plan of attack if you want to make change is to get involved at the local level,” said Jeremy Bertino, a prominent member of the Proud Boys from North Carolina.
But it has to be remarked that in a way this is a return to “Tea Party”-style tactics, rather than any specifically paramilitary form of politics. It’s yet to be seen if this “think local” tact will yield the Proud Boys the cadre they need to be an intimidating presence. So far, they have largely failed to be a constant part of urban political life in the way interwar street-fighting groups were. Perhaps more alarming are the GOP takeovers of state election apparatuses—animated by the same stolen election myth as January 6.
But why hasn’t the violence been worse or more sustained? Above I noted that political activism in the 21st century was much easier to initiate, because of social media and the internet, but perhaps for the same reason, they are harder to sustain: the old work of politics created longer lasting organizational structures that don’t get built in permanent ways from online enthusiasm. Hysterias and panics are easy to whip up online, but hard to keep going—there’s always something new. Still, there has been sustained political effort around the stolen election myth and attempts by far right paramilitaries to stay relevant and mobilized, even if it’s not highly visible.
On the propaganda front, perhaps the myth of January 6 has been more succesful than the model of violent intimidation. For the most part, January 6’s appeal has remained subcultural. According to an ABC News poll:
An overwhelming majority (72%) of Americans believe the people involved in the attack on the Capitol were "threatening democracy," while 1 in 4 Americans believes that the individuals involved were "protecting democracy." Broken down by party identification, Democrats are nearly unanimous (96%) in believing that those involved in the attacks were threatening democracy. Republicans are more split, with 45% saying it was a threat and 52% saying those involved in the riot were "protecting democracy."
I’ve always reckoned that about 25% to 30% of the American population has hard right politics that one would could “fascist” without too much exaggeration and this poll confirms that intuition. That’s still quite a lot of people, even if it’s a minority of the public. I think the interesting part of this polling though this is the percentage of Republicans who support what happened. It’s pretty clear that some of the propaganda efforts to sanitize, celebrate, or obfuscate what happened on January 6 have been successful enough to stabilize it as the majority view of the GOP. This is internally-directed propaganda, for the movement itself, not to persuade others, suggesting that this is something of a defensive operation to prevent January 6 from turning into a rout for the Right. However, the propaganda necessarily has an offensive component as well: if January 6 is laudable, defensible, etc., then presumably some such action should be contemplated in the future. In any case it is clear, looking at polling for the midterms, that January 6 has not become a millstone around the neck of the GOP, so they have succeeded in that regard.
On the French Right, February 6 1934 was felt to be the beginning of a “national revolution” that culminated in Vichy. For the Left, it marked the beginning of the Popular Front. Did January 6 2021 also inaugurate a new era in American politics? I think in the sense that the entire Trump era did, you’d have to say yes. The emergence of Trump and January 6 brought longstanding elements of extreme right fantasy to life—he has excited and mobilized the fringe of American politics like no one before has. Whether or not his failures are more dispiriting or tantalizing is still an open question.
Millington and Jenkins, France and Fascism: February 1934 and the Dynamics of Political Crisis, p. 34
Colton, Léon Blum, pg. 95
Millington and Jenkins, pg. 69
Millington, A History of Fascism in France, pg. 1
Paxton, The Anatomy of Fascism, pg. 93
Compare the efforts of Trump to create a cult around Ashli Babbitt, to the pathetic, self-serving, and ultimately self-defeating attempts of several journalists who had been on the scene to turn themselves into living martyrs of trauma.