On Toscano’s Critique of “Racial Fascism”

Three Way Fight


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

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.

*          *          *

* 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.

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