Fascism's History and Rise in California

Date: 25 April 2023

Author: Matthew J. Hunter

Tags: N. America, Philosophy

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California is widely seen as one of the more progressive States within the US. It’s considered forward and liberal on matters of LGBTQ+ rights and other social issues. The reality of California’s history as a State within the US and its contemporary class antagonisms is one that’s far more disturbing and reactionary than the image the ruling class likes to present. California has a deeply intertwined homegrown fascist movement that it has never defeated, and in actuality is rising in prevalence — from mass lynchings, KKK terrorism, police gangs, and a foundation built on settler colonial genocide.

What is Fascism?

First, we must define fascism, and specifically fascist movements. In 1933, the Communist International (ComIntern) guided by the expertise of Cdes. Georgi Dimitrov and Palmiro Togliatti defined fascism as, “the open, terrorist dictatorship of the most reactionary, most chauvinist and most imperialist elements of finance capital. Fascism tries to secure a mass basis for monopolistic capital among the petty bourgeoisie, appealing to the peasantry, artisans, office employees and civil servants who have been thrown out of their normal course of life, and particularly to the declassed elements in the big cities, also trying to penetrate into the working class.” While this definition is enough to extrapolate an analysis from, it’s important to draw on others in how to look at the fascist movements in California and how they’ve grown over the years. 

Cdes. Joseph Stalin and Georgi Dimitrov, circa 1936

Guyanese revolutionary, theorist, and historian Walter Rodney identified fascism as “a deformity of capitalism” that “heightens the imperialist tendency towards domination which is inherent in capitalism,” and “safeguards the principle of private property.” Likewise, he asserted that “at the same time, fascism immeasurably strengthens the institutional racism already bred by capitalism…” 

Indian Marxist economist Prabhat Patnaik, in his work Neoliberalism and Fascism, assessed that “[fascists] invariably invoke acute hatred against some hapless minority groups, treating them as the ‘enemy within’ in a narrative of aggressive hyper-nationalism, and attribute all the existing social ills of the ‘nation’ to the presence of such groups; second, they are based not only on prejudice but also on complete unreason, in the sense that no amount of evidence can possibly shake off such prejudice; third, they set themselves up as movements, trying to acquire social hegemony, as distinct from mere secret societies or murderous gangs (though the latter may also be inspired by fascist ideology and may find room within these movements); and fourth, they are not averse to the use of street violence for achieving their political ends…” 

Finally, Communist Party USA Chairman Gus Hall assessed that “possibly the most important lesson of history for us in the United States is to develop an awareness of the factors that are present in our midst today that can become the base for a fascist development.” From these formative teachers in the international working class movements, we can draw that fascism is a terroristic stage of monopoly capital expressed through a disaffected “middle class” from economic and social pressures. Fascist policies and aims as an ideology are as Togliatti said “eclectic,” but its general base is that of the deepest and most violent forms of chauvinism, racism, and reactionary politics. 

Mojave Indian mother holding her baby daughter, circa 1900

Origins of Fascism in California: 1769 to 1900

California has been shaped by settler colonialism through three colonialist projects — Spain, Mexico, and, most disturbingly, the United States of America. As Walter Rodney expressed, fascism is a natural development from the barbarism and racism of colonialism. Hitler and the fascists of Europe took direct inspiration from the US’ white supremacist myth of Manifest Destiny — the belief that white settlers were entitled to the entirety of North America. From 1769 to 1847, before US control, the population remained majority indigenous — 320,000 indigenous people compared to 12,000 mainly Spanish colonizers. California was a backwater economically and was never a main focus of development and primitive accumulation for the Spanish empire and subsequently Mexico. As such, acts of genocide against the indigenous population were kept to the missionary system set up by the Catholic Church until California came under US jurisdiction. Before the official annexation of California in 1848, “American” settlers were already invading the territory. After the discovery of mass gold reserves in the region, the rate of primitive accumulation and all the horrors that come with it descended on the region.

The indigenous population fell ultimately to 16,000 in 1900, from 320,000 during the start of Spanish colonial rule. Additionally, 10,000-27,000 indigenous people were forced into slavery during the gold rush to supply a labor force. At least 4,500 are documented to have been murdered during this expansionist period. The overall California Genocide against the indigenous population was by way of murder, theft, slavery, and disease. This stain of colonialism is embedded into the societal structure, and not at all an exception to it. 

Part of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo that ended the Mexican-American War was the US agreeing to protect the property and civil rights of Mexican nationals that stayed in the new annexed regions. As a result, the now majority white colonizers flooding California — 70,000 immigrated in 1849 alone — needed to resort to extrajudicial violence in order to seize the property of the people living there. Mass mob violence against Mexicans became the norm. Ken Gonzales-Day in his research determined there were 350 documented cases of lynching in California from 1850-1935. Most of the victims of the racist mobs that were now colonizing California were Latino as well. In a similar time-frame in another study, California is close to southern states like Louisiana (391) and Alabama (347) in terms of lynchings. 

In the era of Reconstruction in the US, a proto-fascist movement and terrorist organization was formed in response to the social and economic changes brought on by the Civil War and subsequent constitutional amendments — the Ku Klux Klan. While predominantly seen as more active in the south, the KKK was also active in California during this era. The Democrat-led California government sided with the Union instead of the Confederacy in the Civil War, and it was able to avoid federal oversight that Southern states incurred following the war, such as military occupation. The KKK and other racist vigilante mobs were able to thrive in California, which refused to ratify the 14th and 15th amendment until 1959 and 1962 respectively. A major target of the KKK was also the new wave of Chinese immigrants seeking a better life in America as a result of repeated foreign invasions — a period known as the century of humiliation which the US took full advantage of. 

There were a dozen KKK attacks in the state just from 1868-1870, mostly against Chinese workers whose population represented now 10% of the state but 25% of the labor force. That was seen as a threat to the now-white ruling class and disgruntled petty-bourgeois whites. This racism wasn’t just relegated to paramilitary mobs; the Governor of California Henry Haight in his inaugural speech in 1867 said that Chinese immigration must cease and that it would “inflict a curse upon posterity.” The horrible tragedy of the 1871 Los Angeles Massacre, one of the largest mass lynchings in US history, murdered 10% of the Chinese population in Los Angeles. The days prior to the massacre were headlined by the first daily newspaper of the city, Los Angeles News, describing the Chinese as an “inferior and idolatrous race.” While no KKK member can officially be linked to the event, the previous two decades of racist violence perpetrated by the Klan, violent colonizing mobs, and sponsored by the highest political authority of the state clearly led to the massacre. 

The growing capital industry and class antagonisms of California are deeply connected. The expansion of the railroad monopolies under capitalists like Cornelius Vanderbilt, James Hill, Jay and George Gould, etc. were financed by banking capitalists like JP Morgan and supported by industrial capitalists like Andrew Carnegie and John Rockefeller. The railroad expansion laid the commercial and manufacturing foundation for the westward expansion that led to the continuation and increase of the indigenous genocide. It also was the industry that exploited much of that immigrant labor force newly arriving on the west coast. Nearly two-thirds of the railroad labor force were Chinese workers. There’s a reason the major working class strikes during this period were connected to the railroad monopolies. Likewise, San Francisco’s industrial output doubled in the 1870s — until the recession of 1875 — with its working class base doubling as well. 

After the economic crash of the mid-1870s, California surged to prominence over the next few decades and into the early-20th century. The central basin of the state became a major agriculture producer that predominantly exploited Latin migrant farmers and Asian immigrants. Los Angeles and San Francisco became massive industrial zones with key harbors used to extend US imperialist influence across the Pacific Ocean. The Chinese Exclusion Act, a stain against the claimed values of both the US and California, was enacted in 1882 and wasn’t lifted until World War Two. As capitalism matured into its imperialist, monopolist stage of development in the late 19th and early 20 centuries, so too did proto-fascist settler colonialism develop into modern fascist movements. 

1917 to Post-WWII

In 1917, the split in the fabric of the capitalist order finally reached its climax due to the Bolshevik Revolution. Working class and oppressed peoples gained momentum worldwide, with Communist Parties forming everywhere in their wake. On 01 September 1919  the Communist Party USA would develop from this seismic shift in the class struggle, directly inspired by the great Bolshevik revolutionaries. Capitalism also had to develop to fight back against this rise of the working class in order to maintain its power — Fascism. As Italy and Germany were the embryos for the modern authoritarian fascist state, it was quickly mirrored in the rest of the western world to combat the international working class. In the 1920’s the KKK saw a second resurgence and perhaps its peak with 2-4 million members in that decade. 

Cde. Lenin delivering his April Theses. Petrograd, 1917. Grigory Goldstein.

In California, the Klan gained monumental influence and political power. The city of Brea’s first eight mayors were members of the KKK, 6 out of 10 city councilmen from 1924-1936 were klansmen, 50% of the city treasurers, 50% of its marshals, 67% of its fire chiefs, and more, were members of the Klan. In Anaheim, 20,000 klansmen gathered to induct 1,000 new members. The anti-labor sentiments of the ruling class, especially in places like Orange County, led to many working class whites to be radicalized into the fascist terror group — 23% of the Klan’s membership in California were oil workers for example, following the demise of the Oil Workers Union. R.W. Ernest was the editor of the Orange County Plain Dealer, one of the main newspapers in Anaheim. Ernest used the pages of his newspaper to promote Klan ideas and activities. In 1917, Anaheim School District voted to segregate Latinos in schools and only maintain two grades for them. This act of racist segregation wasn’t appealed until a 1947 decision which ended all official school segregation in California. 1917 did see a legal win for Indigenous people gaining the right to vote in the state. 

One of the more infamous cases of Klan violence was in the city of Inglewood, a city where KKK posters were put up all over the city reading “Caucasian Only”, on 22 April 1922. That night, 100 klansmen attacked the house of a Spanish immigrant family, torturing and sexually assaulting them. Ultimately, the police arrived and a firefight ensued, wherein one klansman was killed. LA county district attorney Thomas Woolwine launched an investigation into the Klan in LA county and uncovered the Sheriff and LA police chief had both been members. It became a nationwide scandal, and it exposed over 150 klansmen to testify about the organization. It was a major blow to the KKK. 

As the KKK were ending their peak, the Nazi movement touched down in California. In 1933, the Nazis held their first public rally in the state. The onset of the Great Depression saw radical politics explode nationwide. The same economic issues that led to major working class mobilization through the work of the Communist Party USA and other organizations saw the continued rise of the US fascist movement. Both communist and fascist movements gain a potential base of supporters as normal liberal, or eventually neoliberal, politics fail to solve the capitalist crisis for the working and petty-bourgeois classes — however, the former seeks it through rational scientific socialism and the latter seeks it through irrational reaction and the worst kinds of barbarism and chauvinism. Nazis were planning clandestine and terroristic operations the same time Harry Bridges, an alleged Communist, led the San Francisco General Strike. 

The plans by Nazi agents were to consolidate the fascist collaborators and organizations and unleash a wave of racist terrorist violence. Multiple times throughout the 1930’s attempts to unify the fascist movement were held — the second attempt in Los Angeles of all places. The plots were still active even without the fascist movement united. Plans to assassinate elected officials, raid National Guard armories, murder Hollywood actors, and so on. Plans to even use a fumigation company to kill Jewish families with poison gas or mass shooting sprees in Boyle Heights materialized. The predominant targets were Jewish, Catholics, African Americans — who were quickly becoming a larger population in the state — and still Latino migrants and Asian immigrants. 

However, the person the Nazis deemed “the most dangerous Jew in Los Angeles,” Leon Lewis, would lead a citizens resistance to the Nazi movement in California, and would undermine their entire operation. Lewis was a veteran of the first World War, and the first national secretary of the Anti-Defamation League. He received funding from Hollywood executives who were afraid of the growing Nazi threats against them personally and their industry. Lewis would establish a spy-ring that uncovered the aforementioned fascist plots, and lead to the arrest of many of them and the overall dismantling of the fifth column threat on the west coast. This effort, along with the mass mobilization and organization of the working class through the New Deal united front, stopped the rise of the fascist movement and plots to violently overthrow the societal structure of the country and state. 

Anti-war protestors marching across the Golden Gate Bridge on Moratorium Day | 15 October 1969. Gordon Peters / The Chronicle

The Modern Fascist Movement in California: Civil Rights era to now

The defeat of the Nazi fifth column in the 1930’s-1940’s did not defeat the stains of proto-fascism, by way of settler colonialism, in the US and California. While there was a lull in full blown fascist movements compared to the 1920’s KKK renaissance or the 1930’s Nazi threat, the Civil Rights Movement that took center stage from the 1940’s-1970’s was met with the fascistic state violence of a settler colonial state. 

During this period of intense state repression on working class movements and organizations we see the Black Panther Party, Brown Berets, and other Marxist and leftist groups form in California and spread throughout the country. Key alliances with Cesar ChavezUnited Farm Workers Union led to significant battles and wins in labor struggles between mainly latin migrant farmers. As a result, the police forces in California took a more paramilitary and fascistic approach to combat this rise in black and brown solidarity and Communist-led coalitions of workers. 

In 1970, the Chicano Moratorium led 20,000-30,000 latinos in protest against the Vietnam War and US imperialism. This working class movement was met with the first documented LA county sheriff department gang. The LASD gangs have become a national story and a constant news item for the county in recent decades, but the origins of their notorious reign of terror began in 1970. The Red Devils were the first documented LASD gang, and started in East LA at the sheriff's station called Fort Apache. The mostly white police officers at the time felt as if they were in a starring role in a xenophobic John Wayne film; that they had to tame the west against those whom they viewed as “savages.” This period was full of civil unrest and police brutality. As Sean Kennedy of the Civilian Oversight Committee said, “[East LA station has an] us-against-them narrative.” 

As the 1970’s-1980’s brought on neoliberal shock therapy, destroying the New Deal policies that uplifted the working and petty bourgeois classes, the rise of fascist groups began once again. In the 1980’s, under reactionary former California governor Ronald Reagan’s presidency, the KKK rose from the ashes of irrelevance to once again terrorize the innocent. Tom Metzger, Grand Dragon of the KKK and the so-called White Aryan Resistance, formed fascist militias on the California-Mexico border for the purpose of torturing, assaulting, and brutalizing innocent immigrants and migrants. The heinous and cold-blooded murder of Ethiopian immigrant Mulugeta Seraw by Metzger’s White Aryan Resistance group led to his downfall in relevance. 

In the same period, police gangs in Los Angeles were despotic in the city of Lynwood, killing asian immigrants and terrorizing the growing black community. The murder of Hong Pyo Lee by the Lynwood Vikings police gang became notorious. In the 1990’s, police gangs Posse and The Wayside Whites organized correctional officers in the prison system to commit fascist violence. Their alleged targets were the mentally ill and black prisoners respectively — especially those who fought against the white fascist prison gangs, such as the skinheads and KKK. On 01 August 1998, the Posse police gang targeted a black prisoner diagnosed with a mental illness, Danny Smith, beating him to death. The brutal beating of Rodney King in Los Angeles set off a massive uprising that wasn’t organized, but fueled the masses all over the country to look at police violence more. The Prison Industrial Complex during this era exploded as well. Angela Davis and Cassandra Shaylor in their report, Race, Gender, and the Prison Industrial Complex: California and Beyond, showed the drastic increase in prison populations — predominantly black, latino, and asian. On top of that, California’s prison population made up of women had increased over the point of the total US prison population in 1970. The private prison industry increased to a multi-billion dollar industry with growing monopoly-capitalism. Unfortunately, this would be a recurring story of police and fascist violence from then to now. These anecdotes are indicative of a wider scope of fascist violence through this period.


Following the 2008 financial crisis, which spawned the Occupy Movement and a resurgence of the communist and anarchist left in the US, we also saw a rise in fascist forces once again. The cyclical nature of capitalism’s boom-bust cycle mirrors the ebbs and flows of the radical left and right movements. The National Socialist Movement, KKK, Traditionalist Workers Party, Golden State Skinheads, Proud Boys, Atomwaffen Division, Oath Keepers, Three Percenters, etc., all spring up over the next decade to take the conservative right of the US to a more overt fascist position. The alt-right, MAGA movement, is the umbrella eclectic coalition of fascist and crypto-fascist groups. Donald Trump, a fascistic populist, took this coalition to the highest office of the country and committed awful atrocities — both at home and abroad. 

From 2008 to the rise of Trump we saw the fascist movement come to prominence. In 2010, Jeff Hall was a member of  the neo-Nazi National Socialist Movement (NSM), and was running for Riverside County office before being murdered by his son. Likewise, that year KKK flyers were spread in northern California. In 2016, just one year before the infamous and tragic Charlottesville fascist attack that left Heather Heyer murdered by a fascist protester, two fascist marches in California took place. A Neo-Nazi march in Sacramento was supposed to be canceled, but a coalition of the aforementioned California fascist groups  attempted to hold the rally regardless — several members of the community who came out in protest of the fascists were stabbed. The same same year, in Anaheim, the KKK tried to hold a rally, but were routed by the community. 

In 2018, an alleged member of Atomwaffen Division, Samuel Woodward, murdered Blaze Bernstein, a jewish and openly gay person. Atomwaffen Division, which has been designated as a terrorist group in multiple countries, was charged with five other murders and possession of explosives with plans to bomb a nuclear facility in a matter of months after Woodward's arrest. 

2020 saw a spike in KKK propaganda being spread in northern California, a black man found lynched in Palmdale, and the highest surge in hate crimes since 9/11.

Sexual Orientation: 48%+

African Americans: 12.5%+

Latinos: 30%+

Asian: 567%+  

Atomwaffen was under threat of being declared a terrorist organization in the US, so it officially dissolved and re-formed into “National Socialist Order.” They would take US homegrown fascism international as journalist Mariana van Zeller reported, “We interviewed members of a white supremacy group called the Atomwaffen Division who has sent members to train in Ukraine… where neo-Nazi militias have recruited white supremacists from around the world to join their fight against Russia and advance racist ideology.” Atomwaffen/NSO sent members to receive military experience with the notorious Azov Battalion and other Ukrainian fascists a year before fascist groups like Proud Boys, Three Percenters, and Oath Keepers under the MAGA umbrella led the 06 January Capitol Coup Attempt.


We know California Proud Boys, Three Percenters, and Oath Keepers were present at the 2021 coup attempt with at least coordination between the latter two groups — some being dual members in both Oath Keepers and Three Percenters. Both groups target petty-bourgeois ex-military members to protect the so-called “traditional values” of colonial America. Oath Keepers leaked their membership accidentally, revealing 3,077 members in California, four elected officials, 24 in law enforcement, 12 in the military, and nine first responders. It showed active fascist infiltration. 

The Proud Boys came out of 06 January facing many individual indictments, but the local membership in California maintained activity. In the central valley, they protested against calls for police accountability to the community, participated in a “Straight Pride" rally in Modesto, protested against an LGBTQ+ friendly theater in Fresno, provided armed security for recall Gavin Newsom events in Bakersfield, and protested against Los Alamitos USD school board for “social justice standards.” Proud Boys attacked a Draw Queen reading event in San Francisco the same day 31 Patriot Front members in Idaho were arrested for planning to start a riot at a local Pride event. The Proud Boys and Turning Point USA started a brawl on the campus of UC Davis. Jeffrey Perrine of the Proud Boys is running for school board in Sacramento. They claimed at least one police officer, Rick Fitzgerald of Fresno, who has been captured on video brutalizing  anti-fascist protesters, in Proud Boys merchandise. They’ve also claimed to have deep ties with the highway patrol. Chad Bianco, former member of the Oath Keepers, has been re-elected Sheriff of Riverside County, as well.


All of these fascist groups and paramilitaries are extremely active, and making connections with law enforcement, as the whistle is being blown about police gangs in LASD. There are at least 18 police gangs that have a documented history targeting racial groups and sexually assaulting women, even within their own police departments. But it’s not just fascist paramilitaries and the police — it’s the fact California has one of the most segregated school systems, with a higher percentage of our people in prisons than any country on earth, worsening environmental system from insurmountable car culture and poor air quality, alienated suburbanism, worsening infrastructure, a homelessness crisis, and highest poverty rate in the country. The neoliberal shock therapy of the last 40+ years, mixed with the baked-in settler colonial and white supremacist institutions, makes the struggle of the working class a difficult battle to overcome. We are living in a period where both new and old monsters are presenting themselves. A United Front of the democratic forces of the working and oppressed classes is the only answer to the rising tide of fascism in California and the country. As fascist forces are actively participating in the electoral battlefield, so too should the democratic United Front to mitigate the political harm we are seeing in Florida or the quasi-coup attempt by state Republicans in Tennessee as examples. Protecting the democratic rights the working class has now and expanding them is vital to the class struggle. As labor issues are taking more national attention due to Amazon, Starbucks, and many others, this must be a key battleground for the working class. We’ve seen the UTLA/SEIU strike in Los Angeles County galvanize 60,000+ workers, and our communities, to stand against exploitation and to protect our most vulnerable students. The aforementioned national labor struggles are also happening in California along with struggles against Elon Musk’s Tesla, as well as Alphabet Inc., which could shake up the tech industry. The political, economic, social, and ideological struggles for the working class will be found in their most heightened state at the electoral and labor level. The working class of the US and California struggled and united before — it can and must be done again to change the system and block the advance of the fascist movement. 


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– Jordan Green, Investigative Reporter. “Big Valley: California Proud Boys Use Secretive Network to Promote 'Their White Supremacist Agenda' -- and Go Largely Unscathed.” Raw Story - Celebrating 19 Years of Independent Journalism, Raw Story - Celebrating 19 Years of Independent Journalism, 8 July 2021, www.rawstory.com/proud-boys-california/ 

– Gallegos, Emma. “Update: Proud Boys Member Running for Sacramento-Area School Board Confronts Another Candidate.” EdSource, EdSource, 22 Aug. 2022, www.edsource.org/updates/proud-boys-member-running-for-sacramento-area-school-board-confronts-another-candidate 

– Womack, Kalyn. “California County Re-Elects Former Oath Keeper as Sheriff.” The Root, The Root, 10 Jan. 2023, www.theroot.com/california-county-re-elects-former-oath-keeper-as-sheri-1849971086 

– Board, Chronicle Editorial. “Editorial: American Fascism Is Still Rising. What Are You Going to Do about It, California?” San Francisco Chronicle, 2 Jan. 2022, www.sfchronicle.com/opinion/editorials/article/Editorial-American-fascism-is-still-rising-What-16739948.php