The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

United States:
Thousands in Militias Ready to Fight – But for What?

May 19, 1995

With the bombing of the Oklahoma City Federal Building still reverberating, the big bourgeois media began to deluge us with statistics about the growth of a militant, extreme-right wing, especially about the rise of the Militias, which have been linked, at least by the media and by official inference, to the bombing.

Of course, the media is in business first of all to make money, and the more sensational the story, the more possibilities to make it. Moreover, the Clinton Administration seems to be feeding the media information, perhaps as a means of justifying the repressive legislation it sent to Congress less than a week after the bombing. (This repressive legislation – which, it should be added, was conveniently on hand, ready to go – can be used against anyone politically active, not simply or even primarily those extreme-right bombers who supposedly provoked it.)

Nonetheless, the searchlight that the bombing shone on the extreme right at least served to demonstrate not only its existence, but also its recent ability to find a response in broader layers of the population beyond the usual base of the extreme right. Obviously, the right is a very heterogenous movement: some of it is rooted far back in U.S. history; but there are also new tendencies born recently which address more directly problems coming out of the current situation.

Racism: As American as Apple Pie

There has long been an extreme-right wing in this country organized on a racist basis, and ready to use violence to enforce its aims. The Ku Klux Klan may no longer be able to mobilize the forces it once did when, in concert with local authorities, it practically policed the states of the Deep South. It may have been severely weakened by the forces of the black movement which effectively tore the KKK's hoods off. Nonetheless, not only didn't it completely disappear; it has seemed to enjoy a small resurgence along with other racist groups, such as those who openly proclaimed themselves Nazis. As far back as 1984, Nazi activists organized and carried out the assassination of Alan Berg, a Jewish radio commentator in Denver. Moreover, the Klan's symbolism – its burning crosses, white hoods and robes and its initials – still have a currency, even where the Klan isn't directly involved. When a gang of young whites – not in the Klan – attacked a black tourist visiting Florida in 1993, setting him on fire, they left a racist note behind signed KKK.

But there are also newer groups, which, while resting on the same openly proclaimed racist basis, have moved to a separatist stance. The most important among these is probably the Aryan Nation, which proposes that the "non-mongrelized", non-immigrant, non-Jewish white population should secede from the existing federally structured United States, and set up their own nation: specifically in the Pacific Northwest and Mountain West, stretching from Northern California through Oregon and Washington, into Idaho, Utah, Montana – that is, the area in which the Aryan Nation is currently concentrated. It disingenuously proclaims that it does not view black people as the enemy – as a proof it proclaims its respect for Louis Farrakhan, whom they say is doing the same work for his race that they want to do for their race; but it has also proclaimed that it is ready to use violence against black people who insist on "mixing" or against Mexicans who try to cross the border into the United States. And the Aryan Nation has openly encouraged, and in some cases organized gangs of young skinheads who carried out apparently random attacks on black people and other minorities, especially in Portland and other cities of Oregon or in Northern California.

Finally, even when they avoid racism directed toward black or Hispanic people, most of the groups of the extreme right – including Farrakhan's own Nation of Islam – dredge up all the old myths about a Jewish conspiracy to take over the world.

Wanted: A Theocratic Republic

What has come to be called the Christian right is probably the biggest part of the organized right in this country. Certainly religion has always played an important role in the political life of this country. But for the past several decades, this influence has been exerted most strongly through the vast array of fundamentalist churches and organizations set up by TV evangelists like Billy Graham or, later, Pat Robertson. The influence of the TV evangelists led to the establishment of more openly political groupings of this religious right. The largest of these, the Christian Coalition, currently claims 1.5 million members. There are also organizations such as the Traditional Values Coalition, which bring together the churches themselves; this coalition says it now represents 31,000 different churches nationwide.

In addition to the more general calls for a resurrection of morality and an end to sin, godlessness and all those other evils, the Christian Right has proclaimed a certain number of precise religious aims: It wants prayer reinstituted in the public schools, it wants official recognition that this is a "Christian republic." And it seeks to legislate its view of morality in various ways, running the gamut from teaching "creationism" in the schools to outlawing abortion to reducing welfare payments so as, supposedly, to make women adopt more responsibility for the children they bare – or more exactly, for their sexual activity.

More to the point, the Christian Right wants politicians who will work to meet its goals, and to this end, it organized vast numbers of church members to campaign during the last two elections. In particular, they played a significant role in the 1994 Congressional elections which saw not only a Republican sweep in both houses of Congress, as well as the state Governor's chairs, but also the election of a certain number of representatives more openly aligned on some of the chief aims of the newly emerging right. Exit polls indicated that just about 1/3 of all Republican voters came from evangelical or born-again Christian churches or organizations, that is the base of the Christian right.

"Pro-Life": An Excuse for Murder

Much of the original agitation against abortion sprang from the churches – especially the Catholic, Southern Baptist and Evangelical churches – almost as soon as the U.S. Supreme Court issued Roe v. Wade in 1973. And this agitation soon had a result. In 1977, the Democratic Congress passed and newly elected Democratic President – and born again Christian – Jimmy Carter signed a major restriction on abortion rights, letting states deny Medicaid money to women for abortions.

In other words, the reaction against the legalization of abortion did not begin with Reagan. However, he was the politician who really jumped to take advantage of the issue. During the 1980 election campaign, Reagan expressed himself totally opposed to abortion, as a way to create a constituency for himself within those churches whose members had traditionally supported the Democrats. But while he proclaimed, repeatedly, that abortion should be prohibited, during his two terms in office he offered no concrete proposals to Congress to this end. And that prompted the growth of groups like Operation Rescue, many of whose activists came from the Christian fundamentalist churches and organizations.

At the beginning, the goal of these so-called "Pro-Life" organizations was to bring pressure on the politicians to make abortion illegal, or at least severely restricted. But soon they moved to more direct action, aimed at preventing women from getting an abortion. And while most of this "prevention" may have taken the form of propaganda, public denunciation of doctors and other medical workers or mass picket lines at the entrances to abortion clinics, a part of the movement turned to open terrorism against those who perform or aid in performing abortions. As doctors and other workers in the clinics have fallen victim not only to harassment, but also to assassination, the availability of abortion has shrunk – to the point that in large areas outside the big cities, it is literally impossible to find a doctor who will perform an abortion. In fact, as of 1992, 83 per cent of all counties in the United States had not one single doctor who would perform an abortion – not because legal prohibitions had been enacted, but because of the fear and harassment created by the "Pro-Life" movement.

"No Taxation without Representation"

It seems obvious that in the United States, where racism has had a long and prosperous career, the right would be infused with it. But it's not simply, or even essentially, this issue which explains the recent growth of the right.

The development of the Posse Comitatus illustrates the point. It was apparently founded in the late 1960s by several people whose first exposure to politics had been in the Silver Shirts, a Nazi inspired organization set up in the U.S. after Hitler took power in Germany. The founders of the Posse Comitatus proclaimed that the true intent of the country's founders was to establish a Christian Republic, where the individual was sovereign. They encouraged people to reclaim their sovereignty by returning driver's licenses, birth certificates, social security cards and other government issued documents. The Posse declared that there can be no higher power beyond the county form of government; that there can be no legislative power, but only grand juries composed only of white Christian males who interpret the law as handed down by God; and no law enforcement authority beyond the county sheriff, who can be removed at will by the local citizens. And it saw government actions like the 1954 Supreme Court decision on segregated schools as a design to encourage race mixing.

But this was not its only message. The Posse Comitatus also addressed questions of taxes. They pointed an accusing finger at the Federal Reserve Bank system, calling it a means by which the Eastern banks drained wealth from the rest of the country and at the income tax as a way of impoverishing working people; they referred to William Jennings Bryan in denouncing the replacement of gold and silver by paper money; they denounced the formation of the U.N., and U.S. adherence to it, as the beginning of a one-world government which would be carried out for the international banking system; with equal fervor, they denounced the U.S. government for sending U.S. soldiers to Korea and to Viet Nam. Certainly organizations like the Posse Comitatus mix this populism with conspiracy theories linking the banking system with Jews, "one-world government", the U.N., the NWO (New World Order), and ZOG (Zionist Occupation Government). But their denunciations emphasize the plight of farmers caught in an economic crisis.

The rapid growth of the Posse Comitatus came in the late 1970s and early '80s, exactly in that period when large areas of rural countryside were being auctioned off because of the drastic collapse of land prices in the late '70s, and the rapid increase in taxes coming from the debt run up for the Viet Nam War.

As the farm crisis developed, a number of farmers stopped paying their taxes. They simply couldn't. When the government – or the banks – came to auction off their land, their family, friends, neighbors gathered in an attempt to stop the auction through the force of their numbers. But militants of the Posse Comitatus, and other groups like it, used these events to raise their ideas. Some of the tax "delinquents" became tax protestors, refusing to pay taxes as a matter of principle.

According to the IRS, in 1978, there had been 6,700 people who had formally refused to pay taxes; in 1979, that grew to 9,900; to 12,823 in 1980; 23,000 in 1981, and 44,500 in 1982. Even if the numbers were small, they were growing, and those protesting were doing so publicly.

The continuing public refusal of a certain number of these people to pay their taxes led first to a series of trials over the issue, and then when their convictions were predictably upheld by higher courts, to a number of confrontations with authorities sent to arrest them – or to take their land for non-payment of taxes. The most well-known conflict occurred in February 1983, when federal marshals tried to serve a two-year old misdemeanor warrant on Gordon Kahl, a farmer in rural North Dakota. This move was part of a harassment campaign aimed against people active in the anti-tax movement. The warrant, which in fact was invalid because it was so old, charged him with a probation violation – that is, that he publicly proclaimed he would not pay his taxes, after he had been convicted of not paying them.

Marshals and deputies stopped him and his family on the road. Two of the marshals were killed. Gordon Kahl's son was shot and three other police officers were injured. Kahl escaped.

Eventually, he was run down in Arkansas and killed in a showdown with FBI agents and local sheriffs. It took the government 3 months to locate him. During those months, Kahl's family, acquaintances, etc. were kept under close watch. In its attempt to smoke him out, the government arrested Kahl's wife under conspiracy to murder charges. His son, who had been wounded in the original confrontation, was found guilty of charges of second degree murder. Kahl was able to escape the authorities for this amount of time, despite a nationwide manhunt, because there was a large enough network of tax protestors and other rural activists stretching from North Dakota to Texas to Arkansas who kept him for awhile and then passed him on.

How large did such organizations become? Members of the Posse refused ever to give figures. The FBI, which often overstates such figures to support its demands for more money or wider powers, estimated in 1976 that the Posse Comitatus had between "twelve thousand and fifty thousand hard-core members", with ten to twelve times that number of sympathizers. By 1990, the FBI publicly estimated that there were 1700 local organizations, with more than 100,000 members either part of the Posse, or in organizations whose aim was to refuse citizenship and set up their own local county government. Whatever the actual figures, it is certain that the desperation in the countryside, which led to rates of poverty in many rural areas every bit as high as in the inner cities, had produced a tinder box of resentment.

Moreover, the government's massive hunt for Gordon Kahl and the harassment of people who knew him added to the sense that the federal government was not only insensitive to the needs of farmers, but was their real enemy.

"... The Right of the People to Keep and Bear Arms Shall Not Be Infringed."

Over the past two years, the fastest growing component of this new right has been those who feel that government proposals to limit the right to bear arms either have a sinister purpose, or at least must inevitably lead to investing the government with still more dictatorial powers over the population.

For decades, the National Rifle Association was the main spokesperson for people who felt sensitive about this issue. While it may have started out as a lobbyist for gun manufacturers, the NRA long ago became something more than that, with a membership that today is 3.4 million. Of course, the NRA always has been very legalistic, numbering among its dues payers many members of Congress, both Democrat and Republican, as well as some presidents. Bush, for example, made news, not because he was a member, but because he quit the NRA in protest over its recruiting letter, in which it had described federal law-enforcement agents as "jack-booted government thugs," and further said, "In Clinton's Administration, if you have a badge, you have the government go ahead to harass, intimidate, even murder law abiding citizens."

Of course, membership for most people means essentially nothing more than paying dues, which go toward lobbying efforts and creating a magazine for the members filled with information about guns, as well as about the NRA's lobbying efforts. Nonetheless 22,000 people came to the NRA's recent convention, held after the Oklahoma bombing.

Over the last decade, the NRA has been bypassed by a number of paramilitary organizations which take literally the Second Amendment's language about the need for militias and the right to keep and bear arms. Organizing week-end retreats to practice military maneuvers, in a private version of the National Guard, and stockpiling weapons, these groups were really on the fringes of the movement until recently. But several recent events seem to have sparked a very rapid growth.

The first was the August 1992 ambush in Ruby Ridge Idaho when FBI and Alcohol, Tobacco & Firearms (ATF) agents, seeking to arrest survivalist Randy Weaver, on a bogus warrant opened fire, killing his unarmed wife and teen-age son. Then came the February 1993 ATF raid on the Branch Davidian compound at Waco Texas, which left 10 people dead, followed by a 51-day siege of the compound and the final assault on April 19, 1993. The bodies of 75 people were recovered, including 25 children. Others were incinerated and never recovered. Soon afterwards, Congress passed the Brady Bill, which requires background checks and a waiting period for anyone who wishes to purchase a weapon; then finally came the ban on "assault weapons."

In the two years since Waco, paramilitary groupings began to consolidate in a number of states, especially, apparently, Montana, Michigan and Texas. Passage of the Brady Bill brought 10,000 demonstrators to Lansing Michigan, the state capital. At the same time, in Montana, people coming out of the Aryan Nation and other racist groups set up a formally structured single state-wide militia. Today, the Militia of Montana claims 10,000 members; outside estimates put its number of really active militants at about 250 people. While the Militia of Montana began as a statewide organization – the first of its kind – it soon began to work to get local groups to build the same kind of structures in their state. The Michigan Citizens Militia, for example, which came from a different background than the Militia of Montana, was aided by it and soon bypassed it in numbers. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which monitors right wing groups, 190 such militias exist in the United States today in 30 some states; some of them are statewide, many more are local. Although, so far, there doesn't seem to be any single national organization, over the last year, these state-wide and local organizations began to build closer national links between themselves.

Right-Wing Populism

Certainly, groups as varied, and in some cases vague as this, cannot be categorized neatly. Almost certainly, people who consider themselves part of a tax resister organization may also be part of the Militia movement. Christian fundamentalists not only may find themselves in the anti-abortion movement, they were one of its chief organizers. Nor do these various groups have programs completely fleshed out, nor even consistent. Some of these groups were strongly supportive of the U.S. war against Iraq, for example; many declare themselves to be strongly opposed. Some of the Militias have roots in racist organizations, others seem to be discussing how to attract black people into their movement.

Finally, there are groups established by corporate interests to push for their interests, which also attract people on a right wing basis. For example, in Western states where the federal government may own more than half the total land of a state, and where ranchers and farmers, already in bad shape, feel burdened down by government restrictions, big corporations masquerading as ranchers and farmers and the big oil, mining and lumbering corporations have been able to build up a somewhat popular movement around so-called "property rights" issues.

In any case, this extreme-right movement is a variegated movement. What all of them share, however, is the sense not only that there is something drastically wrong today in this country, but also that there needs to be a drastic or radical solution to the problems people face.

Many of them dress up their message in populist rhetoric. They speak about an economy turned over to the service of the big banks, the big corporations and the wealthy. They speak about the weight of taxes on the population – a population which cannot control what the government decides to spend. They look at the growing disparity between the "elite" and everyone else. And while many of them stay within the framework of the Republican party, many more view the two parties both as enemies.

What is most critical, the Militias have found the issue which could unify the widely disparate parts not only of this movement but of vast disaffected layers of the population: from the Klan on the one hand, to "Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership (America's Aggressive Civil Rights Organization)" on the other; from farmers dispossessed from their land, to workers who believe their jobs lost to NAFTA. That issue is the struggle against the state – or at least the federal state.

Ray Southwell, one of the leaders of the Michigan Citizens Militia, recently was quoted as saying, "I believe there's three ways of controlling the government. The first way is the election process, the second is the threat of using force to take the government back...the third process of keeping our government in check is by taking it back. I personally don't believe we're at that point." The implied "yet" did not have to be spelled out.

Are we at the point to see this extreme right wing movement unified around a fight against the state apparatus, and an extreme-right party constructed on this basis? Not yet, obviously. But we could see it in the future, and we have no way really to know how fast developments could go.

The Unions Left the Door Open for the Extreme Right

The last 17 years have seen a steadily worsening situation for the laboring classes of this country, both urban and rural. The distance between the small number at the top and the very large number at the bottom continues to widen. No longer do the corporations hide their intentions: they brag openly about the improvement in their profits coming from the "drastic restructuring" of the workforce – and as everyone knows, restructuring means both lay-offs and wage cuts. Farmers continue to be dispossessed from their land.

Facing this crisis, the only large mass organizations on the left – that is, essentially the unions – have shown themselves unable to do the one thing which would allow them to counterpose themselves to the right. They do not propose to make a political fight against the capitalist class or its representatives in power. They do not even say it's necessary.

Through the propaganda they have made against Mexico and Japan, for example, or the propaganda they have made for the idea that the "surge" of new immigrants coming into the country is responsible for "taking" the jobs of American workers, they have helped create a climate in which right wing ideas could flourish. By everything they do, they implicitly support the capitalist system, even if they criticize such and such a corporation. Often, they go on record supporting "their own" corporation when it claims to have difficulties, defending the idea that "their" company needs a certain level of profits. Thus they tie the fate of the workers to that of "their" corporation.

When the companies back them into a corner, leaving no other possibility than a fight, even then they propose the kind of fight which has no prospect, as narrow as possible, as respectful of the courts and police orders, etc., as possible. And, as in the desperate struggle at Caterpillar, they ask workers to keep looking to those same courts and public officials for help. In no way do they propose that the working class respond to these attacks politically, that is by mobilizing its forces as a class against the ranks of the capitalist class, and against the government which supports and defends the corporations.

In fact, responding to the series of defeated strikes which labor has gone through, their main proposal is simply for the workers to ... go on doing what they have already been doing, that is work to put Democrats in office, the very same Democrats who passed much of the legislation cutting taxes for the wealthy and raising taxes for everyone else; the very same Democrats who have waffled on every single issue which the unions declared to be important.

In effect, the extreme-right has grown up in a vacuum. In contrast to the unions which defend the existing system, even though they may complain that it's not functioning fairly today, there are organizations on the extreme right who have something to propose. Something radical. And, for many people, less and less does their talk about the need to prepare for violent confrontation seem outrageous.

Sizeable parts of the population, including workers and the poorest farmers, seem open to the right today. If they are, it's because the extreme right seems to be the only one, in the face of a growing economic crisis, proposing radical solutions. The only one which appears ready to do something.

What Answer to the Growth of the Right?

Obviously the growth of the right could raise dangers for the working class. And not least of all because this right has all sorts of ties – through the military – to the very state it pretends to oppose. McVeigh was trained by the military. He got his access to certain weapons through the whole network which spreads out from the military. And we shouldn't forget that some of the strongest talk today against federal police agents comes from Gordon Liddy, himself a long-time such agent, hired out in service not to the "federal government" – this right-wing bugbear – but to the bourgeois state itself.

This is not fascism, obviously, but the right can go in that direction, if the bourgeoisie requires it. And it is preparing troops today.

Some of the unions seem a bit worried today by the growing emergence of the right. They denounce it. And they demand that the government do something about it. That is, they call on the bourgeois state, the biggest user of violence to enforce exploitation on the working class, to defend the working class against violence.

If the right is to be opposed, this can come only through the working class preparing to organize itself, mobilizing its own forces to make a radical fight, including a fight for power. In so doing, the working class can pull to its side part of the forces the extreme right today attracts, forces that are searching for radical answers.

The extreme left in the Unites States has always been small. But the problem for the extreme left in this situation is not just its size, it's also the goals it will give itself, facing this growth of the right. And the left has to put first on the agenda the question of building a working class revolutionary party. It is in organizing such a party that the extreme left can find its ways to rally all those angry and disaffected people, workers and others – who today see only the right ready to fight the government and its state apparatus.