In 1980, TRNN’s Eddie Conway helped organize a prisoners’ educational outreach program called “Say Their Own Word,” where thinkers and scholars came to Maryland Penitentiary and spoke about topics like impending US fascism, the prison-industrial complex, capitalism, increasing surveillance, and many other issues that have become even more pressing today. These speakers included Amiri Baraka, Askia Muhammad, Bruce Franklin, Nijole Benokraitis, and Charlie Cobb. As part of a series, TRNN will be speaking with these individuals about their predictions in 1980 and how they resonate today. This interview is with Dr. H. Bruce Franklin, an American culture historian and scholar.
Dr. Franklin was a vocal critic of the Vietnam War, and his radical politics led to his firing by Stanford in 1971, a move that was seen as a blow to academic freedom on US college campuses. He has published writing on topics as diverse as the Vietnam War, prison literature, environmentalism, and science fiction. He is currently a professor emeritus at Rutgers University, where he retired from in 2016 at the age of 82, after teaching there since 1975. Eddie Conway spoke with him again leading up to the 2020 election for TRNN’s Rattling the Bars, and he reflected back on his speech in 1980, and also discussed the current political situation.
In 1980, when Franklin spoke at Maryland Penitentiary, it was just prior to the ‘Reagan Revolution,’ and he warned of the rise of fascism in American politics. He related this rise back to the works of Malcolm X and George Jackson, both writers who spoke about fascism from the perspective of Black prisoners in the United States. He drew on the works of those writers to give the prescient warning that “Fascism in its most terroristic phase may not look like fascism to those who benefit from it.”
Speaking to TRNN now, Franklin reflected on how the fascism that he spoke about in 1980 has expanded and been normalized throughout American society:“Now, when you look in the 40 years since we talked, a lot of the hallmarks of fascism have become true in the United States. The surveillance, the unleashing of the police, mass incarceration, and so forth,” he said.
Franklin’s speech to the Maryland prisoners also highlighted Malcolm X’s view that for Black people, America has always been a prison. He spoke about how racism was the foundation for capitalism and imperialism, and how capitalism and imperialism are the starting point for fascism. He believes that the point is even more salient today where voter suppression and disenfranchisement of Black people, the mass incarceration of Black people, and the ties between the Republican Party and right-wing militias have all taken hold.
Fascism is being pushed along by the growing inequities in our society between the rich and the poor, Franklin explained.
“The fact is fascism is a system that is imposed when capitalism is in real serious trouble. And it is, capitalism is in trouble. We saw that in 2008, and we haven’t escaped from that. [It isn’t about just] ownership and production, [capitalism] is making the existence of our species on the planet questionable,” he said. “We’ve only been around a short time, and we have already … created two threats to the existence of our own species. Nuclear weapons … and now climate change.”
However, Franklin is hopeful that young people in America are prepared to fight back: “I’m 86 years old. I’ve been [doing activism] for over six decades, but I’ve never seen a movement as wide and deep as the present movement. This is hopeful. It’s very exciting to see all the young people out there,” he said.
Similar to the views he expressed in 1980, Franklin sees hope in solidarity and internationalism by young people as a way to dismantle fascism and, ultimately, capitalism.
“Many, many young people in this country and other places around the world realize that what we’re facing is a collapsing system. The cold capitalist system is collapsing, and it’s taking down the planet and us with it,” Franklin said. “So people are recognizing that we need to have an alternative to that. We need to think of a future where the great productive capacities that we have, that capitalism has built, are used for the betterment of people.”
Additional reporting by Molly Shah