Dec 30, 2020

On Toscano’s Critique of “Racial Fascism”

By Devin Zane Shaw

Editor's introduction: Does racist state repression equal fascism? Did white supremacist capitalism create fascism in the United States long before it arose in Europe? In this post, Devin Zane Shaw applies a three way fight approach to explore Black radical thinking about fascism and antifascism from W.E.B. Du Bois to George Jackson and Angela Davis. Shaw argues that it’s important to address both the deep connections AND the conflicts between the U.S. liberal political order and fascism, and that we need related but different strategies to combat far-right street movements and the racist capitalist system.

Alberto Toscano’s “The Long Shadow of Racial Fascism,” published last October in Boston Review, is part of a broader reconsideration of fascism in light of colonialism, settler-colonialism, and the Prison Industrial Complex (hereafter PIC). His work is part of an antifascist current which is rightly critical of the mainstream discussion among liberal intellectuals, whose analyses of the far right and the Trump administration tend to rely on analogies between the present conjuncture and German and Italian fascism, eliciting—at least on social media—poor comparisons between current events and prospective Reichstag fires or the collapse of the Weimar Republic. While Toscano highlights the importance of including the Black Radical critique of PIC in antifascist thought, his account does not situate his concepts of “racial fascism” or “late fascism” (analogically modeled on the concepts of “racial capitalism” and “late capitalism”) within a three-way fight framework.

In their analogies, the mainstream liberal view often presents the recent rise of the far right and so-called “Trumpism” as a marked departure from prior American politics. Toscano, drawing on the Black Radical tradition, argues that recent events are deeply rooted in colonialism, settler-colonialism, and antiblack racism. He shows that a number of Black intellectuals in the 1930s, such as George Padmore and Langston Hughes, had demonstrated the family resemblances—though, importantly, not outright identity—between settler-colonialism and European fascism.

Black and white photo of Du Bois in profile
W.E.B Du Bois, circa 1911
We will focus here on Toscano’s reading of W.E.B. Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction, a “monumental reckoning with the history of U.S. racial capitalism.” His interpretation of Du Bois uncritically accepts an understanding of fascism that blocks an appreciation of the three-way fight. Toscano argues that

the overthrow of Reconstruction enacted a “racial fascism” that long predated Hitlerism in its use of racial terror, conscription of poor whites, and manipulation of (to quote the famous definition of fascism by Georgi Dimitrov) “the most reactionary, most chauvinistic, and most imperialist sector of finance capital.”

Toscano’s interpretation of Black Reconstruction results in a reductive view of Du Bois’s concept of the public and psychological wages of whiteness. Though Black Reconstruction and Dimitrov’s speeches on fascism both date from 1935, they present starkly different directions in antiracist and antifascist praxis. Dimitrov posited a narrow view of fascism as the most reactionary faction of capital to legitimate a popular front policy, which allowed communists to organize with social democrats and factions of the bourgeoisie which opposed their most reactionary peers.

In the United States, the popular front also led to a shift in the Communist Party USA position on Black liberation from self-determination to civil rights. And even though Dimitrov’s speeches called for the mass antifascist party in the US to fight for the equal status of Black Americans, their interests were, as Robin D.G. Kelley observes in Hammer and Hoe, his study of communist organizing in interwar Alabama, effectively sidelined in Communist Party work during the popular front.* While the Black Panther Party later adopted the popular front line under their leadership as a Black vanguard party (hence, I believe, Toscano’s invocation of it), the claim that fascism is rooted in the most reactionary faction of capitalism came to be paired, via George Jackson, with focoist underground armed resistance severed from mass organizing. We should keep these historical pitfalls in mind when developing our own antifascist praxis.

For Du Bois, the wages of whiteness functioned to establish a broad recomposition of settler-state hegemony across class lines for the white bourgeoisie, petty bourgeoisie, and working class (I will explain settler-state hegemony below). But the wages of whiteness did more than merely align racial interests against class interests. Here, we step from Black Reconstruction to Kwando Mbiassi Kinshasa’s Black Resistance to the Ku Klux Klan in the Wake of Civil War (2006). We should also note that white racists formed clandestine system-oppositional groups (such as the first Ku Klux Klan), which carried out terror in the Reconstruction South. In response, Black Southerners engaged in self-defense to fight back. On this basis, we may also conclude that the recomposition of settler-colonial hegemony around the wages of whiteness also pulled system-oppositional white racists within a system-loyal paradigm while effectively disarming Black opposition to racism and Jim Crow.

A three-way fight perspective must examine how settler-state hegemony coalesces between the interests of capital and white settlerism, so that militant antifascism can successfully fight both.

For Du Bois, the hegemony which coalesces around the wages of whiteness marked the defeat of what he called “abolition democracy” by Northern industrialists and Southern whites. In terms of the three-way fight, his account differentiates between abolition democracy, system-loyal Northerners and system-oppositional Southerners. What Toscano calls “racial fascism” would be part of a broad hegemony and not merely the most reactionary faction of capital. But Toscano doesn’t necessarily evoke Dimitrov to the letter. More accurately, Toscano adapts Dimitrov’s line to treat racial fascism as a form of “extreme” capitalism (or “late fascism,” which is as problematic a term as “post-fascism” used by others)—that is, as an extreme form of the capitalist system rather than as a reactionary or extremist faction of the bourgeoisie.

Given that contemporary forms of the system-oppositional far right emerged conditioned by, and in response to, the ascendency of the neoliberalism and the PIC, Toscano is correct to return to criticisms of PIC developed by George Jackson and Angela Y. Davis (among others). More specifically, modern forms of the far right and fascism are a reaction to liberation struggles, “preventive counterreform” even. However, it becomes especially important to untangle counterrevolutionary forces without conflating them. Thus it would be necessary to disentangle state power—embodied here in the development of PIC within generally liberal legal parameters—and its relationship to white supremacy: both how neoliberal hegemony coalesces around “law and order” and how, despite this recomposition of whiteness and hegemony, far-right groups on the ground shift toward system-oppositional currents in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The latter facets escape the horizon of Toscano’s account. 

Instead, Toscano returns to his initial challenge to liberal antifascists. On the basis of Jackson and Davis, he contends that the growth of PIC is not a departure from liberal governance but part and parcel of its modern forms. But his schematic assertions remain problematic. For example, he argues:

This [a view that takes George Jackson's and Angela Davis's concept of fascism] both echoes and departs from the Black radical theories of fascism, such as Padmore’s or Césaire’s, which emerged from the experience of the colonized. The new, U.S. fascism that Jackson and Davis strive to delineate is not an unwanted return from the “other scene” of colonial violence, but originates from liberal democracy itself.

On the one hand, in the last few years there has been a well-warranted revival of interest in Aimé Césaire’s Discourse on Colonialism, but his observation that fascism was imperialist violence turned back upon Europe does not accurately describe how fascism is conditioned by a settler-colonial society. On the other hand, Toscano’s account also incorrectly draws a false dilemma between the “other scene” of colonial violence and liberal democracy in order to assert the continuity between liberal democracy and fascism. The distinction is a false dilemma because settler-colonialism—the dispossession and oppression of Indigenous peoples—is not beyond the borders of and historically prior to liberal democracy but within it and ongoing.

It becomes especially important to untangle counterrevolutionary forces without conflating them: both how neoliberal hegemony coalesces around “law and order” and how far-right groups on the ground shift toward system-oppositional currents in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Thus, I contend that a three-way fight perspective must examine how settler-state hegemony coalesces between liberalism and white supremacy, or between the interests of capital and white settlerism, so that militant antifascism can successfully fight both. In other words, an analysis of the far right and fascism in North America must maintain an analytic distinction between liberalism and white supremacy even though there is a constantly moving dialectic between them. They converge through some common interests and diverge on others.

We have seen how, according to Du Bois, these interests converged through the wages of whiteness (although his account must be modified to incorporate how the white settlement of the western frontier served in the formation of post-Reconstruction hegemony). They have diverged more recently, for example, when liberal factions of settler-state hegemony have extended formal protections for minorities demanded by civil rights movements. In response, far-right groups have turned toward system-oppositional forms of organization.

In general, I assert that far-right movements are system-loyal when they perceive that the entitlements of white supremacy can be advanced within bourgeois or democratic institutions and they become insurgent when they perceive that these entitlements cannot. On this basis, we cannot collapse the reactionary dimension of PIC and the reaction of system-oppositional far-right movements. I would suggest that the far-right street movements defending the thin blue line remain in need of interpretation—what actual material benefits accrue to them for rallying on the side of the police, and what symbolic or ideological needs are met here? Why do some far-right groups ally with state power and others reject it?

We will conclude by revisiting Toscano’s claim that fascism is a form of “preventive counterreform.” It is a longstanding view, at least since Clara Zetkin’s essay “The Struggle against Fascism” (1923), that fascism emerges on the basis of the revolutionary failure of the left. Given that the left lacks the strength it had many decades ago it is more accurate to describe the recent far-right reaction as preventive counterreform, attempting to block the formation of a mass militant antifascist, antiracist, and anticapitalist movement from growing out of the antipolice uprising during 2020. And here Toscano’s account fails us; it ends without outlining any conclusions for antifascist practice. In my view, this failure occurs because he has identified fascism as a political or state form of “extreme” capitalism, which collapses antifascism into the struggle against this system. By contrast, militant antifascism has to organize against both far-right street movements and capitalism.

Indeed, the present crisis also runs deeper than terminological choices like “preventive counterreform” imply. There were, this summer and fall, widespread antifascist and antiracist struggles against both policing and insurgent right-wing groups. The police and the far-right sometimes took up tactical alliances (even if it was merely law enforcement looking the other way when far-right groups went on the attack) and in other cases policing turned against these groups (we can see this in the federal law enforcement crackdown against the Boogaloo Boys and others).

As I have argued, during the fall of 2020, it was uncertain whether far-right groups would align as system-loyal or system-oppositional after the US presidential election. It was possible that the election would result in a reorganization of settler-state hegemony with a more prominent public and perhaps institutional role for far-right organizing. Although I thought it unlikely, I also did not want to minimize the danger of this possibility either. The other possibility, that the far-right would be pushed organizationally back toward system-opposition, appears to be the result of Trump’s defeat—though, of course, along the way the Republican party has also been pulled even further toward far-right tendencies.

Toscano helps highlight the counterrevolutionary threat of the still present mechanisms of PIC and other state apparatuses, but the far-right as a system-oppositional movement remains outside his analytic horizon. While liberal antifascists, on his account, cannot naively congratulate themselves for defeating fascism by electing Biden, Toscano’s own position is detached from a practical relationship to ongoing militant antifascist movements.

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* Surveying Communist Party USA organizing in Alabama, Robin D.G. Kelley argues that the party “practically ceased to function as an independent, autonomous organization…the failure of the CIO’s Operation Dixie, anticommunism within the AFL-CIO, not to mention the anticommunism of the NAACP, weakened or destroyed the Communist-led unions, leaving an indelible mark on the next wave of civil rights activists and possibly arresting what may have been a broader economic and social justice agenda” (Hammer and Hoe, xx). 

Photo: Addison N. Scurlock, National Portrait Gallery collection, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.