CounterPunch is a lifeboat of sanity in today’s turbulent political seas. Please make a tax-deductible donation and help us continue to fight Trump and his enablers on both sides of the aisle. Every dollar counts!
On May 19th, 2017 18-year old Devon Arthurs shot two of his roommates dead in Tampa, Florida. All three were formerly involved in the same Neo-Nazi group, Atomwaffen Division (“Atomic Weapons Division”), before Arthurs converted to Salafist Islam and killed his roommates for “disrespecting” his new faith. After murdering them, he went to a smoke shop down the street and screamed at everyone there, “Do me a favor and get the fuck on the ground!” before waiving his gun at a customer and saying, “Why shouldn’t I kill you?” Arthurs managed to go from membership in a white nationalist group that was making weapons for domestic terror to killing his former Atomwaffen associates and nearly a group of strangers, as well.
While this appears to be an isolated result of Arthurs’ individual ideological dysphoria, I think it says something more about the deep-seated enmity and lack of trust that many white people harbor toward other whites. An Indian comrade based in the United States recently told me how much she thought progressive white activists in America hate their own people. She said that she noticed them constantly attacking other white people in an attempt to prove and perform their own radical politics. This observation rang true and raised a question that is just as difficult as it is important to answer: If we cannot love our own people—the people who are called white—do we believe that we are forever confined to being white before being human?
White radicals’ hatred for their own people is most evident in antifa rhetoric and activism, which I subjected to criticism at Orchestrated Pulse last year. These radicals express contempt for seemingly all white people except for themselves. In a report from a Trump rally in 2016 submitted to It’s Going Down!, a principal voice of antifa activists, street fighters in San Jose rail against “aggressive and arrogant racist Trump supporters” and brag about giving them “many righteous beatings” at the event. In a 2017 interview with anti-fascist author Alexander Reid Ross in the same publication, white members of “leftwing movements” who have purportedly fallen under the spell of “a very conservative language of ethnic nationalism and separatism,” are also identified as agents of a “creeping fascism” in America. Finally, the “white ally” is condemned as “bankrupt” in an article entitled “Another Word for White Ally is Coward,” in which the authors respond “to those who don’t trust us [antifa]” with the retort, “You shouldn’t, and we don’t trust you either.”
What is most interesting about these criticisms is that they target all ideological groups of white people but never whiteness itself. The objective consequence of this method is a defense of whiteness; that is, the belief that if we simply find a better way of being white, we can end white supremacy. I argue that this is impossible. We can never become full human beings while we are white; our own race suicide is a precondition for our humanity.
Indeed, the leftist obsession with ‘shutting down’ white nationalists and fascists can be best understood not as an attack on white supremacy, but as a defense of whiteness. More specifically, it is a defense of the white liberal, whom black revolutionaries have consistently identified as the ideological linchpin of white supremacy. Despite their antagonistic language toward white liberals, most white radicals from so-called Marxists to antifa activists fall into the trap of identifying the white extremist as the primary agent of white supremacy, thereby giving a free pass to the white liberal, whom they reject in theory but often align with in practice. For white revolutionaries, our task is not to defend a ‘left’ version of whiteness as an alternative to its right-wing expressions, but to abolish whiteness altogether.
The White Liberal: The Great Stumbling Block in the Stride Toward Freedom
It is a unique position of white radicals to view small bands of white nationalists and fascists as the primary enemy of the people. From the mainstream of the Civil Rights Movement to the militant side of Black Power, black revolutionaries have consistently maintained that it is the white liberal, not the white race extremist, who is the primary obstacle to freedom and justice in America. Malcolm X eloquently explained why this is so:
The white liberal differs from the white conservative only in one way: the liberal is more deceitful, more hypocritical, than the conservative. Both want power, but the white liberal is the one who has perfected the art of posing as the Negro’s friend and benefactor, and by winning the friendship and support of the Negro, the white liberal is able to use the Negro as a pawn or a weapon in this political football game that is constantly raging between the white liberals and the white conservatives.
Lest Malcolm’s sentiment be understood as a fringe position, we need look no further than Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1963 “Letter from Birmingham Jail” for another example of this analysis: “I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Council-er or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate . . .” Despite their initial divergence in strategy and tactics, both Malcolm and Martin shared the fundamental political analysis that the white liberal is the ideological glue that holds white supremacy together in America.
This analysis stands in stark contrast with that of the contemporary American left which has, with a handful of exceptions, identified what they understand to be the Trump-alt-right nexus as the primary enemy of the people. For example, the Torch Network, a collective of a dozen anti-fascist groups in the United States, lists as their first point of unity the priority to “disrupt fascist and far right organizing and activity.” Likewise, Refuse Fascism, another leading anti-fascist coalition, identifies the “Trump Regime” as the source of fascism in the United States, contending that “we do not have much time” to organize against it on an “emergency basis.”
By failing to understand that the white liberal, not the white nationalist, is the ideological cornerstone of white supremacy, these self-proclaimed anti-fascists have played into the hands of the Democratic Party, which is happy to support their activities. This is just as true when these radicals rhetorically denounce the Democratic Party and the “liberal establishment” like they have a habit of doing in the pages of It’s Going Down! This militant rhetoric means little when the objective political consequences of their actions serve to strengthen, not undermine, the interests of the Democratic Party and its accompanying liberal apparatus of unions, NGOs, and the mainstream media.
An instructive example of the alignment between the Democratic Party and antifa’s analysis of the American political situation is Madeleine Albright’s recent interview with Terry Gross on NPR, in which the former Clinton Administration Secretary of State—who stated in 1996 that murdering half a million Iraqi children was “worth it”—sounds eerily similar to the American left on fascism and Trump. Albright equates fascism with communism, echoes the “creeping fascism” analysis of antifa, and goes as far as calling Trump’s foreign policy “anti-American”:
That’s what’s so worrisome, is that fascism can come in a way that it is one step at a time, and in many ways, goes unnoticed until it’s too late. . . I don’t see America as a victim [like Trump does]. I see America as the most powerful country in the world that has a role to play, standing up for democratic ideals and human rights across the board.
This belief in American exceptionalism and its corollary of Manifest Destiny is the imperialist essence of the white liberal; by participating in the anti-Trump movement, the left plays right into her hands. Moreover, the politics of the white liberal—propagated by the multiracial petite bourgeoisie at large—has not and cannot emancipate poor and working class whites in the way that the unique form of class leadership provided by the black worker did during Reconstruction and has the potential to do today. All of this begs the question: If the white liberal, and not the white extremist, is the foundation of white supremacy, how does this inform our understanding of fascism?
What Is Fascism? Leon Trotsky Versus George Jackson
Leon Trotsky’s writings on fascism have become a touchstone for many leftists trying to make sense of the United States under the Trump administration. In his various pamphlets on the topic, Trotsky draws on the Italian and German situations in the 1930s to develop a critique of the Communist International’s “social fascism” line of the time, which warned against a Communist alliance with Social Democrats to combat fascism in Europe.
In his 1932 essay, What Next?: Vital Questions for the German Proletariat, Trotsky wrote a short “Aesop Fable” in support of a united front between Communists and Social Democrats against fascism in Germany. He draws a parallel between the Comintern’s line on fascism and a bull who equates the evil of the cattle butcher with the evil of the cattle dealer. While today’s conditions are very different from those in the 1930s, the majority of the left has recycled Trotsky’s concept of the deadly difference between the butcher (the white nationalist) and the dealer (the white liberal) to justify lesser evil voting and, by extension, a “united front” between leftists and the Democratic Party.
In Trotsky’s fable, when one bull tries to convince the other that the butcher poses a greater immediate threat to their life than the dealer, the Comintern bull will not agree and calls the other bull a “social-butcher” (a reference to the Comintern’s line of Social Democrats as “social fascists”). The moral of the story is that both will be killed by the butcher due to the Comintern bull’s failure to understand the qualitative difference between the butcher and the dealer and to form a united front with the other bull against the butcher.
The parallels between Trotsky’s analysis of 1930s Germany and alarmism about Trump in contemporary America—which spans from the liberal New York Times to leftist journalists and intellectuals like Arun Gupta and Andrew Kliman—is quite apparent. What unites them all is a distinctly Eurocentric understanding of fascism, or the idea that fascism in America and the world’s darker nations can be understood in reference to Germany and Italy in the 1930s and in isolation from the reality of imperialism and the attack against black America.
Whatever one’s evaluation of Trotsky’s approach to fascism with respect to Italy and Germany in the 1930s, well over a year into the Trump administration this approach has failed miserably to help us understand and combat fascism in the contemporary United States. Indeed, this alarmism has resonated so little with the masses—who rejected Clinton by casting a protest vote or simply staying home—that we have now found ourselves in the midst of a Trump presidency. Are the white workers who voted for Trump all fascists? What about black Americans, whose disinterest in forming a united front against Trump led to a record drop in voter turnout—are they fascists too?
Without an understanding of the particularity of American fascism, we will, following Trotsky, be compelled to flippantly answer “yes” to both of these questions. But now that it is clear that Trump is not the apocalypse as we were told by so many liberals and leftists leading up to and following his election, such an answer would leave us politically incapacitated. If we want to begin to understand fascism in America, we must turn to Black Panther Party Field Marshal George Jackson’s analysis of fascism in his 1971 book, Blood in My Eye.
As opposed to Trotsky’s one-dimensional “butcher” view of fascism, Jackson proposes that fascism has three faces: “out of power,” “in power but not secure,” and “in power and securely so.” The fascism that Trotsky describes is a depiction of the second face, which is “the sensational aspect of fascism we see on screen and in pulp novels.” However, in America, fascism shows its third face, during which “some dissent may even be allowed.” Jackson explains American fascism in this way:
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 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.
Never has a better diagnosis of the conditions which allow antifa and the anti-Trump movement to have “the luxury of faint protest” been given. To draw a parallel with Jackson’s own European example, just as Italian philosopher Benedetto Croce was permitted to publish an anti-fascist manifesto in 1925, three years after the fascist march on Rome, American antifa intellectuals with groups like the Campus Anti-Fascist Networkare free to remain aboveground in the nation’s most elite colleges and universities and condemn fascism openly without fear of repression from the state. What’s more, they are even allowed to openly express hatred for other white people with little more than an eyebrow raised from conservatives and intermittent pats on the back from liberals.
In direct contrast to the line of Refuse Fascism and other anti-fascist organizations active in the United States, Jackson’s analysis shows that fascism hardly started with the Trump administration. Many have failed to notice this reality since fascism has most frequently deployed its third, not second, face against the left in recent decades. However, while fascism is in power and securely so for the time being, Trump has produced contradictions in its efficiency and disguise by challenging the liberal ruling class with appeals to industrial capitalists and workers, tariffs that drove his own economic adviser to quit, and challenges to the Pentagon’s increasingly hawkish attitude toward Russia.
The left’s failure to understand fascism in general and the multiplying and intensifying contradictions of the Trump era in particular is largely traceable to its underdeveloped understanding of whiteness. While black America has been subjected to mass incarceration, police terror, relentless gentrification, and disproportionate deaths on the front lines of America’s imperialist wars for decades, many white leftists have determined that it is not these historical experiences of fascism in America, but the recent rise of Trump, that is most deserving of outrage and resistance.
This failure to understand fascism in relation to the color line takes its most egregious form in organizations like the Campus Antifascist Network, who attack right-wing “fascism,” yet say nothing of the liberal university’s mass participation in research for war-making, policing of poor and working class black neighborhoods, and central role in the viscous gentrification of America’s blackest cities. This analysis has the effect of obscuring rather than clarifying the contradictions we face today. The contradiction between Trump and large segments of the ruling class illustrates a political climate that C.L.R. James described in The Black Jacobins in reference to the Haitian Revolution:
The first sign of a thoroughly ill-adjusted or bankrupt form of society is that the ruling classes cannot agree how to save the situation. It is this division which opens the breach, and the ruling classes will continue to fight with each other, just so long as they do not fear the mass seizure of power.
The question is, then, how can we understand and use the mushrooming and intensifying social contradictions of the Trump era not to side with the liberal wing of the ruling class against the conservative one, but to seize power from the ruling class as a whole?
Deepening Contradictions in the White World
Rather than an antagonism between “fascists” and “anti-fascists,” the spectacle of white leftists fighting white rightists can be understood as evidence of deepening contradictions within what W.E.B. Du Bois and James Baldwin called “the white world.” The irony we are faced with today is that the main social force preventing these contradictions from coming to the surface is antifa and its leftist and liberal supporters, who fail to see such contradictions for what they are.
Instead of understanding events like street fights between white people, white-on-white school shootings, and recent protests for gun control as indicators of whiteness coming apart at the seams, today’s anti-fascists see them as conflicts between white fascists and everyone else. This is the root of the strategic crisis of the anti-Trump left. Rather than fight fascists as representatives of the white world for a caricature of the black world, we would be better served to fight against whiteness for our own—and the world’s—humanity.
What does this mean in practice? To answer this question, we must understand it historically. By betraying the black worker during Reconstruction, the poor white of the South and white worker of the North were able to solidify the material and psychological benefits of being white: the wages of whiteness, so-called white man’s work, and, for some, the prospect of land and property, which has never been separate from the question of labor. At the same time, by seeing the black worker as a competitor rather than comrade, they betrayed their own humanity and the possibility of a united working class revolution in America.
Today, the benefits of whiteness have dwindled to nearly zero as real wages have declined consistently since 1973, foreclosures have shaken the institution of white home ownership, the opioid crisis has ravaged countless white communities, and the labor unions that provided the white worker the material necessities of life and dignity of labor now represent barely 10% of all American workers. It’s no wonder many Trump supporters oppose his capitulation to American imperialism in Syria; there is less and less at home to justify war abroad.
This crisis in the white world continues to take an enormous toll on our people, but also presents the opportunity to tear whiteness out by the roots. There is no blueprint for abolishing whiteness, but it will begin with the two-pronged task of, first, rejecting the petite bourgeois politics of the white liberal in favor of the human potential of the white poor and working masses and, second, building principled unity with the black world in America in service of a global struggle for humanity led by what W.E.B. Du Bois calls the “dark proletariat,” that global working class majority upon whose surplus value production capitalism depends. For those who think this approach is anti-white, I would recommend Noel Ignatiev’s simultaneous denunciation of whiteness and proclamation of love for those of us who are called white:
We are anti-white, but we are not in general against the people who are called white. Those for whom the distinction is too subtle are advised to read the speeches of Malcolm X. No one ever spoke more harshly and critically to black people, and no one ever loved them more. It is no part of love to flatter and withhold from people what they need to know.
Devon Arthur’s about-face from a leadership role in a Neo-Nazi organization to murdering his Atomwaffen compatriots reveals a deepening crisis within the white world. When he interrogated a stranger with the question, “Why shouldn’t I kill you?,” before surrendering to police and confessing his crimes, I wonder what exactly it was that he wanted to kill. Was it white people or whiteness? Arthur was, like almost all of us, unconscious of the difference. Sealed in his whiteness, he grew to hate his people and could not conceive of anything other than white supremacy or white destruction. Supremacy could not be justified, so destruction was the only option. This is the tragedy of whiteness; as long as it is seen as inevitable, we will be locked into one of these two paths.
But there is another path. With the benefits of whiteness reaching new lows, we are well-positioned to take on the world-historical task of committing suicide as white people. If we succeed, we might just be reborn, finally, as human beings.
This essay originally appeared on Orchestrated Pulse.