A few of the Communist women who shaped U.S. history / by Norman Markowitz

Images: People’s World and CPUSA Archives; Emma Tenayuca, “La Pasionaria de Texas” ; Charlene Mitchell campaign poster

Reprinted from Political Affairs (04/2010) in celebration of Women’s History Month.

From its very outset, the struggle for women’s liberation has had deep connections to the development of the socialist movement. The utopian socialist Charles Fourier said famously that a society was judged by its treatment of women. The oppression of women in both work and in the home and the hypocrisy of bourgeois morality were dealt with by Marx and Engels over and over again in their works, not as something separate from the class struggle and the exploitation of the working class by capitalists but integral to it.

In a number of European countries, Marxist socialist parties, in the tradition of the German Social Democratic Party (SPD), advocated women’s suffrage and women’s rights when liberal and even self-styled radical parties avoided the issue for fear of losing both their capitalist financial backers and male votes.

Women activists in the United States were a part of the socialist movement and organizations like the syndicalist Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) before women gained the right to vote, although the leaders of the Socialist Party of America (SPA) were no more militant or focused in their support for women’s suffrage and women’s rights than they were in the support for the civil rights and larger social economic liberation of the African American people.

With the formation of the Communist Party USA and its development after 1919, militant women, like militant African Americans of both genders, were drawn to the CPUSA in far greater numbers than the declining Socialist Party or other groups on the left. These included very well-known activists like IWW leader Elizabeth Gurley Flynn and labor radical Mother Bloor.

Flynn, for whom the martyred IWW people’s singer Joe Hill had written the song “Rebel Girl,” was to become the most famous CPUSA woman leader of the interwar period and would become a Cold War political prisoner in the 1950s. She would end her long and distinguished life as chair of the CPUSA in the early 1960s after her release from prison.

Her life can be contrasted with that of Margaret Sanger, a socialist champion of women’s reproductive rights before and during World War I. Both faced state repression. Sanger, though, left the socialist movement and became a founder of Planned Parenthood in the postwar era. While she remained a progressive, she found herself courting business interests and hobnobbing with overt racists, neo-Malthusian reactionaries, and more covert racist eugenicists whose support for birth control was rooted in a desire to limit working class and minority populations.

Women like the West Indian-born Harlem activist Claudia Jones became, in the 1930s, important grassroots leaders of the CPUSA youth organizations and later the CPUSA itself. Mexican-American activist Emma Tenayuca led striking agricultural workers and was called “La Pasionaria de Texas” in late 1930s San Antonio.

Although male chauvinism certainly existed in the CPUSA, the Communists were really the only political party which used the concept of male chauvinism in any way and sought to combat it. In this sense, it was continuing to develop a concept rooted in both the pre-World War I socialist and feminist movements. At times, these movements were allies, although often divided over what feminists saw as the Socialist Party leadership’s sellout of women’s rights and what male socialists’ saw as feminists’ “bourgeois” orientation, struggling for political rights and entry into elite positions at the expense of the larger working class.

The CPUSA actively bridged these differences, not with complete success by any means but to a greater degree than any other group. Within the women’s labor movement, the number of militant CPUSA-affiliated women who became union leaders was, from my readings, greater in percentage terms than the number of CPUSA-affiliated men, although this is very difficult to quantify since the deforming effects of anti-communist policy meant that CPUSA affiliations were often unacknowledged.

For example, in the rightly distinguished documentary, Union Maids, the stories of three 1930s women labor activists are told without, given the crippling effects of postwar McCarthyite repression, once mentioning that all three were CPUSA activists. In reality, they would have to have been Communists, given the support system they relied on to continue their struggles. In the documentary, all three women are asked to say what socialism meant and means to them. While this is done well, understanding the women and their conceptions of women’s rights, racism, sexism, and socialism is significantly reduced without any treatment of their CPUSA context.

Major histories of women in and of the CPUSA have yet to be written, just as systems of national health care, full employment policies, de jure and de facto gender equality, have yet to be established in the U.S. But there is much that we can say about the Communist contribution to gender equality and the negative effects of both anti-communist ideology and policy in undermining the struggle for women’s rights as it has undermined all people’s struggles.

Even before World War II, Communist-affiliated trade union women in the Communist-led United Electrical Workers union (UE) established the first contract in which women workers were given a larger hourly increase than men in an attempt to make up for long-term gender inequality, an early practical example of what would decades later be called affirmative action.

As the labor movement expanded and millions of new women workers were drawn into war work in the 1940s, Communist-affiliated women in the industrial unions especially fought to protect women workers from on-the-job discrimination and also to support federal legislation to provide public daycare services—legislation which was the first of its kind but which conservative coalition opposition in Congress defunded to the point that it became little more than tokenism.

CPUSA-affiliated women who were the wives of military personnel also organized around military bases in the U.S. (the great majority of the 15 million who served in the military did not see service, much less action abroad) to both fight against the effects of military segregation and also to oppose the racist violence that this segregation helped to engender, especially on Southern bases where legal segregation was in effect.

CPUSA-affiliated women continued to play a leading role in struggles for labor’s rights, against racism, and for peace during the Cold War era—in some respects an even larger role, given the success of the purges and blacklists and anti-Bill of Rights legislation frightening so many away from exercising their rights to freedom of speech, assembly, and association.

Communist-affiliated women played an important role in the formation of Women’s Strike for Peace in the 1960s and the Coalition of Labor Union Women (CLUW) in the 1970s, even though institutional McCarthyism created in these and other organizations a kind of “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.

Earlier women like Mary Licht, whom I had the privilege of knowing through the CPUSA’s History Commission and who had participated in the South at great risk in the defense of the Scottsboro Nine, dedicated the rest of their lives to the defense and development of the CPUSA. Women like Dorothy Burnham, African American scholar and intellectual whom I had and have the pleasure of knowing in the CPUSA, played important leadership roles.

In 1968, when the CPUSA, after nearly three decades of repression and what would be considered internationally as persecution, ran its first presidential campaign since 1940, Charlene Mitchell was the candidate at a time when the presidential candidate of any “third party,” left or right, was virtually unknown. She was the first Black woman to run for president of the United States.

The influence of political parties and social movements exists on many levels. Betty Friedan, for example, came from a middle-class Jewish American family in Illinois, attended an elite women’s college during World War II, and then did graduate work at Berkeley. There she became involved with a variety of political struggles, some of which included Communist Party activists, and she then went to work for the left-labor Federated Press. This media outlet attempted to provide for working-class media what the Associated Press did for capitalist media.

Friedan later wrote for the UE News and supported the Progressive Party in 1948. She grew up politically in a left movement and culture in which the CPUSA played the leading role. Although the postwar repression ended her career as a left-labor journalist, she continued to try to write for women’s publications as she settled uncomfortably into the role of a suburban housewife.

Issues of male chauvinism inside the CPUSA were revived during the early Cold War era and discussed in party clubs and forums as the repression sought to build what French Philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre called a “ring of fire” between Communists and their fellow citizens. Friedan, through her early 1960s work The Feminine Mystique, played an essential role in articulating what in socialist and later Communist circles was called “the women question.” She always went to great lengths to hide or simply ignore her past as she became a celebrity, and aimed her feminism initially at college-educated women frustrated with their lives as housewives whose labor was both unpaid and undervalued.

But one can find in her work an analysis of and resistance to ideologies of oppression that was a foundation of the Communist movement in the period in which she came of age politically. One can also find in her later work as a founder of the National Organization for Women (NOW) an emphasis on building broad, inclusive organizations and acting politically both inside and outside normal channels. She advocated lobbying for changes in the law, organizing mass protests to advance such changes, and preparing the movement for future advances. This kind of strategic and tactical outlook also characterized the Communist Party and the larger left movement which was the leading force in her youth.

The relationship between Communists and feminists in the 1950s and ’60s was complex, usually cooperative, and sometimes contradictory, as it had been much earlier between Socialists and feminists in the pre-World War I era. The ideological straitjacket that Cold War politics sought to trap all Americans in made it difficult to acknowledge and understand those relationships, but understanding them is very important if both the successes and failures of the past are to serve as guides to contemporary struggles.

Angela Davis took a very different path than Betty Friedan. An African American scholar, intellectual, and activist, Davis grew up in the postwar left and CPUSA political culture from which Friedan withdrew. She became a CPUSA member and supporter of the Black Panther Party, a teacher of philosophy, and a political prisoner whose acquittal in the early 1970s was itself a victory over a generation of political repression.

She also worked as an activist against racist and political repression, for comprehensive reform of the criminal justice system, and for the full inclusion of African Americans and all other minority peoples in a pluralistic democratic American culture. Although Davis later left the CPUSA, it was in a non-polemical way and, unlike some others, she never lent her name to anti-Communist activities and remains a friend of the party.

Davis became an international figure through her membership and leadership in the CPUSA for a generation. Her writings here and abroad reached large numbers with their eloquent portrayal of struggles in the U.S. against racism, male chauvinism, imperialism, mass incarceration, and war. She also reflected the CPUSA’s internationalist outlook by relating those struggles with people’s movements throughout the world.

One could go on and on listing the accomplishments of CPUSA and Communist movement-affiliated women to people’s movements and struggles, both the famous, like Anne Braden and Meridel LeSeuer, and the many less well-known activists fighting for tenants’ rights and rent control, campaigning to get city councils to pass resolutions for single-payer health insurance, the establishment of nuclear-free zones and nuclear disarmament, the transfer of billions from the military budget to people’s needs and more.

Although gender integration has advanced greatly in the U.S. and through many organizations, so much remains to be done. But the long-term struggles and achievements of Communist women in the supportive atmosphere the CPUSA established are indispensable contributions to the success of the campaigns to advance women’s liberation in both the present and the future.

Norman Markowitz is a Professor of History. He writes and teaches from a Marxist perspective, and has written many articles on a variety of topics, including biographical entries on Jimmy Hoffa, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, the civil rights movement, 1930-1953, and poor peoples movements in U.S. history.

U.S. political prisoner Mutulu Shakur has six months to live. Will courts finally grant compassionate release? / by People’s Dispatch

Activists rally outside of the Department of Justice in Washington, DC, to demand compassionate release for Mutulu Shakur (Photo via @KaranjaKeita on Twitter)

Originally published in Peoples Dispatch on July 27, 2022

In May, doctors with the United States Federal Bureau of Prisons gave political prisoner Mutulu Shakur six months to live, according to his attorney. In response, activists and supporters of Mutulu are rallying for his compassionate release. On July 20, activists rallied outside of the Department of Justice in Washington, DC, to deliver a letter signed by over 200 faith leaders, demanding Mutulu’s release. An online petition for Mutulu’s release, created by faith leader Lumumba Bandele, has over 60,000 signatures.

In their fight for compassionate release, Mutulu’s supporters often uplift his legacy as a community health worker. From 1970 to 1978, Mutulu was part of the Lincoln Detox Center, a revolutionary project at the Lincoln Hospital in New York. Lincoln Detox was founded in 1970 by the Republic of New Afrika, the Black Panther Party, revolutionary Puerto Rican diaspora organization the Young Lords, and Students for a Democratic Society.

Life-long state persecution

Mutulu has been suffering from cancer since 2019. In 2020, early into the COVID-19 pandemic, Mutulu applied for compassionate release due to his severe health problems, which included hypertension, diabetes, glaucoma, and the aftereffects of a stroke while in solitary confinement, as reported by The Intercept.

Judge Charles Haight Jr., the same judge who had sentenced Mutulu to prison despite conceding that Mutulu was illegally targeted by the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) through the COINTELPRO (Counter Intelligence Program), denied his compassionate release in 2020. According to Haight, since Mutulu was not at death’s door in that exact moment, he did qualify for compassionate release.

“Should it develop that Mutulu’s condition deteriorates further, to the point of approaching death, he may apply again to the Court, for a release that in those circumstances could be justified as ‘compassionate,’” Haight wrote in his decision.

Now, as the chemotherapy Mutulu had been undergoing is no longer effective against his cancer, he once again applied for compassionate release on July 17. Due to his health conditions, he is especially susceptible to the consequences of contracting COVID-19, a disease which he has already contracted at least twice.

Mutulu, like other U.S. political prisoners such as Mumia Abu-Jamal and Ruchell Magee, was a Black revolutionary activist during the height of the Black liberation movement in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s. Similar to those revolutionary figures such as Mumia or Assata Shakur, Mutulu was also accused of killing police officers. According to his website, the case against him contains a number of defects: “Evidence, which was illegally seized, was allowed to be presented by the prosecuting attorney,” the website states.

In the late 1960s, Mutulu joined Black Power movement organization Revolutionary Action Movement (RAM) and later the Republic of New Afrika, which was organizing to build a Black nation independent of the U.S.. It is for this revolutionary Black activism that Mutulu was targeted by the FBI’s infamous COINTELPRO, which, in its own words, sought to “expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, or otherwise neutralize” revolutionary Black organizations.

Mutulu was close with many prominent figures and organizations of the Black liberation movement, such as the Black Panther Party, as well as his stepson, celebrated hip hop artist Tupac Shakur. Mutulu was also charged in aiding the escape of political prisoner Assata Shakur, who lives freely in Cuba to this day, to the chagrin of the FBI.

A revolutionary health project

Mutulu was central to the Lincoln Detox Center, first as a political education instructor, then certified and licensed acupuncturist, then as the program’s Assistant Director. While practicing acupuncture, Mutulu co-founded the Black Acupuncture Advisory Association of North America (BAAANA) and the Harlem Institute of Acupuncture. His work in acupuncture and drug detoxification gained international recognition; he was invited to the People’s Republic of China.

Under the leadership of these radical organizations, the Lincoln Detox Center became a wholly unique healthcare project, diagnosing drug addiction as not a problem of the individual addict, but of an oppressive system. Former Young Lord Walter Bosque told Curbed, “The patients are, unfortunately, thinking that they’re the problem, that they’re the misfits…They don’t realize that the society is corrupt.” Following the unique healthcare strategy of looking beyond the individual illness and instead at the whole of society, patients studied Marxist theory and performed community service as part of their treatment. “Political education classes at Lincoln Detox attract 50-100 people daily,” wrote allied activist publication White Lightning.

The practitioners at the Detox Center were weary of the drug methadone, used to treat recovering addicts at the time. Instead, their strategy was to begin with methadone, but then slowly wean patients off of the drug using holistic methods such as acupuncture. As written in White Lightning,

The armies of slum-lords, script doctors, organized crime, greedy drug companies, methadone pushers, corrupt cops, and producers of rot-gut wine are plundering our communities.

Activists say that Mutulu’s respected work in people’s health is precisely why he has been incarcerated for so long. Reverend Graylan Hagler told the Real News Network,

That’s what he has. An impact, just by his presence. And that makes the system fearful. Particularly a system that wants to basically control the narrative, control the message, control the image, it makes that system very harsh and evil in terms of the way they treat somebody.

Peoples Dispatch, formerly The Dawn News, is an international media organization with the mission of bringing to you voices from people’s movements and organizations across the globe. Since its establishment three years ago, it has sought to ensure that the coverage of news from around the world is not restricted to the rhetoric of politicians and the fortunes of big companies but encompasses the richness and diversity of mobilizations from around the world. Peoples Dispatch also seeks to bring to you breaking news from a perspective widely different from that of the mainstream media. We invite people’s movements and political organizations everywhere to send us information and news from their countries. The information can be in Spanish, Portuguese, English or Hindi.

The Long Shadow of Racial Fascism / by Alberto Toscano

October 28, 2020

In the wake of the 2016 election, public intellectuals latched onto the new administration’s organic and ideological links with the alt- and far right. But a mass civic insurgency against racial terror—and the federal government’s authoritarian response—has pushed hitherto cloistered academic debates about fascism into the mainstream, with Peter E. GordonSamuel Moyn, and Sarah Churchwell taking to the pages of the New York Review of Books to hash out whether it is historically apt or politically useful to call Trump a fascist. The F-word has also been making unusual forays into CNN, the New York Times, and mainstream discourse. The increasing prospect that any transfer of power will be fraught—Trump has hinted he will not accept the results if he loses—has further intensified the stakes, with even the dependable neoliberal cheerleader Thomas Friedman conjuring up specters of civil war.

Is it historically apt or politically useful to call Trump a fascist? The long history of Black radical thinking about fascism and anti-fascist resistance provides direction in this debate.

Notwithstanding the changing terrain, talk of fascism has generally stuck to the same groove, namely asking whether present phenomena are analogous to those familiar from interwar European dictatorships. Sceptics of comparison underscore the way in which the analogy of fascism can either treat the present moment as exceptional, papering over the history of distinctly American forms of authoritarianism, or, alternatively, be so broad as to fail to define what is unique about our current predicament. Analogy’s advocates point to the need to detect family resemblances with past despotisms before it’s too late, often making their case by advancing some ideal-typical checklist, whether in terms of the elements of or the steps toward fascism. But what if our talk of fascism were not dominated by the question of analogy?

Attending to the long history of Black radical thinking about fascism and anti-fascist resistance—to what Cedric Robinson called a “Black construction of fascism” alternative to the “historical manufacture of fascism as a negation of Western Geist”—could serve to dislodge the debate about fascism from the deadlock of analogy, providing the resources to confront our volatile interregnum.

• • •

Long before Nazi violence came to be conceived of as beyond analogy, Black radical thinkers sought to expand the historical and political imagination of an anti-fascist left. They detailed how what could seem, from a European or white vantage point, to be a radically new form of ideology and violence was, in fact, continuous with the history of colonial dispossession and racial slavery.

Black radical thinkers have long sought to expand the historical and political imagination of an anti-fascist left, revealing fascism as a continuation of colonial dispossession and racial slavery. 

Pan-Africanist George Padmore, breaking with the Communist International over its failure to see the likenesses between “democratic” imperialism and fascism, would write in How Britain Rules Africa (1936) of settler-colonial racism as “the breeding-ground for the type of fascist mentality which is being let loose in Europe today.” He would go on to see in South Africa “the world’s classic Fascist state,” grounded on the “unity of race as against class.” Padmore’s “Colonial Fascism” thus anticipated Aimé Césaire’s memorable description of fascism as the boomerang effect of European imperialist violence.

African American anti-fascists shared the anti-colonial analysis that the Atlantic world’s history of racial violence belied the novelty of intra-European fascism. Speaking in Paris at the Second International Writers Congress in 1937, Langston Hughes declared: “We Negroes in America do not have to be told what fascism is in action. We know. Its theories of Nordic supremacy and economic suppression have long been realities to us.” It was an insight that certainly would not have surprised any reader of W. E. B. Du Bois’s monumental reckoning with the history of U.S. racial capitalism, Black Reconstruction in America (1935). As Amiri Baraka would suggest much later, building on Du Bois’s passing mentions of fascism, 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.”

In this view, a U.S. racial fascism could go unremarked because it operated on the other side of the color line, just as colonial fascism took place far from the imperial metropole. As Bill V. Mullen and Christopher Vials have suggested in their vital The US Antifascism Reader (2020):

For people of color at various historical moments, the experience of racialization within a liberal democracy could have the valence of fascism. That is to say, while a fascist state and a white supremacist democracy have very different mechanisms of power, the experience of racialized rightlessness within a liberal democracy can make the distinction between it and fascism murky at the level of lived experience. For those racially cast aside outside of liberal democracy’s system of rights, the word ‘fascism’ does not always conjure up a distant and alien social order.

Or, as French writer Jean Genet observed on May 1, 1970, at a rally in New Haven for the liberation of Black Panther Party chairman Bobby Seale: “Another thing worries me: fascism. We often hear the Black Panther Party speak of fascism, and whites have difficulty accepting the word. That’s because whites have to make a great effort of imagination to understand that blacks live under an oppressive fascist regime.”

It was largely thanks to the Panthers that the term “fascism” returned to the forefront of radical discourse and activism in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The United Front Against Fascism conference held in Oakland in 1969 brought together a wide swathe of the Old and New Lefts, as well as Asian American, Chicano, Puerto Rican (Young Lords), and white Appalachian (Young Patriots Organization) activists who had developed their own perspectives on U.S. fascism—for instance, by foregrounding the experience of Japanese internment during World War II. In a striking indication of the peculiarities and continuities of U.S. anti-fascist traditions, among the chief planks of the conference was the notionally reformist demand for community or decentralized policing—to remove racist white officers from Black neighborhoods and exert local checks on law enforcement.

Political prisoners close to the Panthers theorized specifically about what we could call “late faLate capitalism, Late fascismscism” (by analogy with “late capitalism”) in the United States. At the same time that debates about “new fascisms” were polarizing radical debate across Europe, the writing and correspondence of Angela Y. Davis and George Jackson generated a theory of fascism from the lived experience of the violent nexus between the carceral state and racial capitalism. Davis, the Black Marxist and feminist scholar, needs little introduction, her 1970 imprisonment on trumped-up conspiracy charges having rocketed her to the status of household name in the United States and an icon of solidarity worldwide. Fewer remember that the conspiracy charge against Davis arose from an armed courtroom attack by her seventeen-year-old bodyguard, Jonathan Jackson, with the goal of forcing the release of the Soledad Brothers, three African American prisoners facing the death penalty for the killing of a white prison guard. Among them was Jonathan’s older brother, the incarcerated Black revolutionary George Jackson, with whom Davis corresponded extensively. Jackson was killed by a prison sniper during an escape attempt on August, 21, 1971, a few days before the Soledad Brothers were to be tried.

In one of his prison letters on fascism, posthumously collected in Blood in My Eye (1972), Jackson offered the following reflection:

When I am being interviewed by a member of the old guard and point to the concrete and steel, the tiny electronic listening device concealed in the vent, the phalanx of goons peeping in at us, his barely functional plastic tape-recorder that cost him a week’s labor, and point out that these are all manifestations of fascism, he will invariably attempt to refute me by defining fascism simply as an economic geo-political affair where only one party is allowed to exist aboveground and no opposition political activity is allowed.

Jackson encourages us to consider what happens to our conceptions of fascism if we take our bearings not from analogies with the European interwar scene, but instead from the materiality of the prison-industrial complex, from the “concrete and steel,” from the devices and personnel of surveillance and repression.

In their writing and correspondence, marked by interpretive differences alongside profound comradeship, Davis and Jackson identify the U.S. state as the site for a recombinant or even consummate form of fascism. Much of their writing is threaded through Marxist debates on the nature of monopoly capitalism, imperialism and capitalist crises, as well as, in Jackson’s case, an effort to revisit the classical historiography on fascism. On these grounds, Jackson and Davis stress the disanalogies between present forms of domination and European exemplars, but both assert the privileged vantage point provided by the view from within a prison-judicial system that could accurately be described as a racial state of terror.

Angela Y. Davis and George Jackson saw the U.S. state—the carceral state and racial capitalism—as the site of fascism. This fascism originated from liberal democracy itself. 

This 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. Indeed, it was a sense of the disavowed bonds between liberal and fascist forms of the state which, for Davis, was one of the great lessons passed on by Herbert Marcuse, whose grasp of this nexus in 1930s Germany allowed him to discern the fascist tendencies in the United States of his exile.

Both Davis and Jackson also stress the necessity to grasp fascism not as a static form but as a process, inflected by its political and economic contexts and conjunctures. Checklists, analogies, or ideal-types cannot do justice to the concrete history of fascism. Jackson writes of “the defects of trying to analyze a movement outside of its process and its sequential relationships. You gain only a discolored glimpse of a dead past.” He remarks that fascism “developed from nation to nation out of differing levels of traditionalist capitalism’s dilapidation.”

Where Jackson and Davis echo their European counterparts is in the idea that “new” fascisms cannot be understood without seeing them as responses to the insurgencies of the 1960s and early 1970s. For Jackson, fascism is fundamentally a counterrevolutionary form, as evidenced by the violence with which it represses any consequential threat to the state. But fascism does not react immediately against an ascendant revolutionary force; it is a kind of delayed counterrevolution, parasitic on the weakness or defeat of the anti-capitalist left, “the result of a revolutionary thrust that was weak and miscarried—a consciousness that was compromised.” Jackson argues that U.S.-style fascism is a kind of perfected form—all the more insidiously hegemonic because of the marriage of monopoly capital with the (racialized) trappings of liberal democracy. As he declared:

Fascism has established itself in a most disguised and efficient manner in this country. It feels so secure that the leaders allow us the luxury of a faint protest. Take protest too far, however, and they will show their other face. Doors will be kicked down in the night and machine-gun fire and buckshot will become the medium of exchange.

In Davis’s concurrent theorizing, the carceral, liberationist perspective on fascism has a different inflection. For Davis, fascism in the United States takes a preventive and incipient form. The terminology is adapted from Marcuse, who remarked, in an interview from 1970, “In the last ten to twenty years we’ve experienced a preventative counterrevolution to defend us against a feared revolution, which, however, has not taken place and doesn’t stand on the agenda at the moment.” Some of the elements of Marcuse’s analysis still resonate (particularly poignant, in the wake of Breonna Taylor’s murder by police, is his mention of no-knock warrants):

The question is whether fascism is taking over in the United States. If by that we understand the gradual or rapid abolition of the remnants of the constitutional state, the organization of paramilitary troops such as the Minutemen, and granting the police extraordinary legal powers such as the notorious no-knock law which does away with the inviolability of the home; if one looks at the court decisions of recent years; if one knows that special troops—so-called counterinsurgency corps—are being trained in the United States for possible civil war; if one looks at the almost direct censorship of the press, television and radio: then, as far as I’m concerned, one can speak with complete justification of an incipient fascism. . . . American fascism will probably be the first which comes to power by democratic means and with democratic support.

Davis was drawn to Marcuse’s contention that “fascism is the preventive counter-revolution to the socialist transformation of society” because of how it resonated with racialized communities and activists. In the experience of many Black radicals, the aspect of their revolutionary politics that most threatened the state was not the endorsement of armed struggle, but rather the “survival programs,” those enclaves of autonomous social reproduction facilitated by the Panthers and more broadly practiced by Black movements. While nominally mobilized against the threat of armed insurrection, the ultimate target of counterinsurgency were these experiments with social life outside and against the racial state—especially when they edged toward what Huey P. Newton named “revolutionary intercommunalism.”

Race, gender, and class determine how fascist the country might seem to any given individual.

What can be gleaned from Davis’s account is the way that fascism and democracy can be experienced very differently by different segments of the population. In this regard, Davis is attuned to the ways in which race and gender, alongside class, can determine how fascist the country seems to any given individual. As Davis puts it, fascism is “primarily restricted to the use of the law-enforcement-judicial-penal apparatus to arrest the overt and latent revolutionary trends among nationally oppressed people, tomorrow it may attack the working class en masse and eventually even moderate democrats.” But the latter are unlikely to fully perceive this phenomenon because of the manufactured invisibility of the site of the state’s maximally fascist presentation, namely, prisons with their “totalitarian aspirations.”

The kind of fascism diagnosed by Davis is a “protracted social process,” whose “growth and development are cancerous in nature.” We thus have the correlation in Davis’s analysis between, on the one hand, the prison as a racialized enclave or laboratory and, on the other, the fascist strategy of counterrevolution, which flow through society at large but are not experienced equally by everyone everywhere. As Davis has written more recently:

The dangerous and indeed fascistic trend toward progressively greater numbers of hidden, incarcerated human populations is itself rendered invisible. All that matters is the elimination of crime—and you get rid of crime by getting rid of people who, according to the prevailing racial common sense, are the most likely people to whom criminal acts will be attributed.

• • •

The lived experience of state violence by Black political prisoners such as Davis and Jackson grounded a theory of U.S. fascism and racial capitalism that interrupted what Robinson called the “euphonious recital of fascism” in mainstream political thought. It can still serve as an antidote to the lures and limits of the analogies that increasingly circulate in mainstream debate.

As the Black Lives Matter movement has made clear, the threat is not of a “return of the 1930s” but the ongoing fact of racialized state terror. This is the ever-present danger that animates present-day anti-fascist energies in the United States—and it cannot be boiled down to the necessary but insufficient task of confronting only those who self-identify as fascists.

Stuart Hall once castigated the British left for its passionate attachment to the frame of anti-fascism, for gravitating to the seemingly transparent battle against organized fascism while ignoring new modalities of authoritarianism. There were indeed fascists (the National Front), but Thatcherism was not a fascism. Conversely, Davis and Jackson glimpsed a fascist process that didn’t need fascists. Fascists without fascism, or fascism without fascists—do we have to choose?

The threat is not a return to the 1930s, but the ongoing fact of racialized terror. To this end, anti-fascism cannot confront only those who self-identify as fascists. 

To bridge this antinomy, we need to reflect on the connection between the features of “incipient fascism”—in the U.S. case, the normalization of forms of racial terror and oppression—and the emergence of explicitly fascist movements and ideologies. We need to think about the links between the often extreme levels of classed and racialized violence that accompany actually-existing liberal democracies (think, for instance, of the anti-migrant militarization of the U.S. and E.U. borders) and the emergence of movements that espouse a host of extreme positions that invert this reality: these include the belief that the state and culture have been occupied by the “radical” left (by “Cultural Marxism,” by critical race theory), that racism is now meted out against formerly dominant ethnic majorities, and that deracinated elites have conspired with the wretched of the earth to destroy properly “national” populations that can only be rescued by a revanchist politics of security and protectionism.

Our “late” fascism is an ideology of crisis and decline. It depends, in the words of abolitionist scholar Ruth Wilson Gilmore, on enlisting supporters on the basis of “the idea and enactment of winning, of explicit domination set against the local reality of decreasing family wealth, fear of unemployment, threat of homelessness, and increased likelihood of early, painful death from capitalism’s many toxicities.” Its psychological wages and racial dividends do considerable political economic work, perpetuating a brutally unequal regime of accumulation by enlisting bodies and psyches into endless culture wars.

But what is this late fascism trying to prevent? Here is where the superstructure sometimes seems to overwhelm the base, as though forces and fantasies once functional to the reproduction of a dominant class and racial order have now attained a kind of autonomy. No imminent threat to the reproduction of capitalism is on the horizon (at least no external one), so that contemporary fascist trends manifest the strange spectacle of what, in a variation on Davis and Marcuse, we could call a preventive counterreform. This politics is parasitic, among other things, on resuscitating the racialized anti-communism of a previous era, now weaponizing it against improbable targets such as Kamala Harris, while treating any mildly progressive policy as the harbinger of the imminent abolition of all things American, not least the suburbs.

But, drawing on the archive of Black radical theories of fascism, we can also start to see the present in a much longer historical arc, one marked by the periodic recurrence of racial fascism as the mode of reaction to any instance of what Du Bois once called “abolition democracy,” whether against the First Reconstruction, the Second Reconstruction, or what some have begun, hopefully, to identify as the Third.

Alberto Toscano is Reader in Critical Theory and Co-Director of the Centre for Philosophy and Critical Thought at Goldsmiths, University of London. He’s the author of Fanaticism: On the Uses of an Idea and of the forthcoming Late Fascism.

Boston Review, October 28, 2020, https://bostonreview.net/