Paul Gilroy : Black Fascism

Article de Paul Gilroy paru dans Transition, No.  81/82 (2000), p. 70-91.



In 1938 C. L. R. James wrote that « all the things that Hitler was to do so well later, Marcus Garvey was doing in 1920 and 1921. He organized storm troopers, who marched, uniformed, in his parades, and kept order and gave colour to his meetings. » James later abandoned this prewar analysis, but his words evoke controversial questions about Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). Did Garvey’s ideology of race consciousness incline him toward fascism ? Or was his sympathy for European dictators grounded in their practical achievements, as with his enthusiasm for Napoleon ? More important, was Garvey’s militaristic leadership kindred to the techniques of rule fascists developed in Italy and Germany ?

It is not my intention to undermine the extraordinary achievements of the Garveyite movement, nor to discount the very real antiblack racism of European fascists. But I do believe that there are affinities between Garvey and the fascists that arise from a common political style. In fact, Garvey might have agreed with this analysis. In a 1937 interview, he talked about the UNIA and its place in history:

We were the first Fascists. We had disciplined men, women and children in training for the liberation ofAfrica. The black masses saw that in this extreme nationalism lay their only hope and readily supported it. Mussolini copied fascism from me but the Negro reactionaries sabotaged it.

The historian Robert A. Hill has described Garvey’s identification with fascism as « naive, » but he also notes that this identification was informed by Garvey’s own explicit anti-Semitism. Whether Garvey’s claim that he inspired Mussolini and Hitler is true or not, it is significant that Garvey himself may have believed it. Though it takes us into even more perilous territory, we must also take account of Garvey’s early associations with the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacists. The symbolic summit these connections was a two-hour meeting between Garvey and Edward Clarke, the Klan’s second-in-command, which took place in Atlanta in June 1922. But even before that, Garvey had spoken favorably of the organization that « lynched race pride into the Negroes, » and he applauded the Klan’s belief in segregation. These positions went hand in hand with his support for the activities of other white supremacist organizations:

In our desire to achieve greatness as a race, we are liberal enough to extend to others a similar right… All races should be pure in morals and in outlook, and for that we, as Negroes, admire the leaders and members of the Anglo-saxon clubs. They are honest and honorable in their desire to purify and preserve the white race even as we are determined to purify and standardize our race.

« Purify and standardize »: Garvey acknowledges here that racial purity is a project, not a condition. Neither biology nor racist oppression is sufficient to generate purity of race: martial technologies of racial becoming – drills, uniforms, medals, titles, rallies – are necessary to standardize a racial outlook that cannot arise spontaneously.

Garvey’s views are part of a nationalist vision supported by the familiar masculine values of conquest and military prowess:

This is a white man’s country. He found it, he conquered it and we can’t blame him because he wants to keep it. I’m not vexed with the white man of the South for Jim Crowing me because I am black. I never built any street cars or railroads. The white man built them for their own convenience. And if I don’t want to ride where he’s willing to let me then I’d better walk.

It has been suggested that these arguments were tactical, designed to aid Garvey’s long-term goal of building the UNIA in the southern states; it’s certainly true that his pronouncements on this point did not draw unequivocal support from UNIA members. Tony Martin, another Garvey biographer, has described the UNIA’s relationship with the Klan and other white supremacists as symbiotic. Dismissing as « simplistic » the notion that these alliances were fundamental, Martin notes that racial purity, enthusiasm for African repatriation, and hostility to integration were simply « common concerns » shared by these very different political constituencies. He ends his study of the UNIA with Garvey’s telling description of his encounter with Edward Clarke: « I was speaking to a man who was brutally a white man, and I was speaking to him as a man who was brutally a Negro. » This moment of transracial symmetry pivots on two features of what I want to call generic fascism: brutality and masculinity.

Years later, Malcolm X would allege Katz that Elijah Muhammad had arranged a similar meeting with the Klan:

I know for afact that there is a conspiracy between, among the Muslims and the Lincoln Rockwell Nazis and also the Ku Klux Klan. There is a conspiracy… Well, the Ku Klux Klan made a deal with Elijah Muhammad in 1960 in the home ofJeremiah X, the minister in Atlanta at that time, in the presence of the minister in Philadelphia. They were trying to make a deal with him to make available to Elijah Muhammad a county-size tract of land in Georgia or South Carolina where Elijah Muhammad could then induce Negroes to migrate and make it appear that his program of a segregated state or separated state wasfeasible. And to what extent these negotiations finally developed, I do not know. Because I was not involved in them beyond the period of December 1960. But I do know that after that, Jeremiah, who was the minister throughout the South, could roam the entire South and the Klan not bother him in any way shape or form, nor would they bother any of the Black Muslims from then on. Nor would the Black Muslims bother the Klan.

Malcolm himself has been represented as a charismatic and authoritarian leader, but he differed from Muhammad and Garvey in that he repudiated collaboration with the Klan and the Nazis. In any case, the transaction that Malcolm terms a conspiracy serves to explicate Garvey’s earlier meetings. For a leader like Elijah Muhammad, the separation that is essential to racial rebirth actually requires – indeed, legitimates – transgressive contact with the forbidden Other in a strange act of fraternalist mirroring. Segregationists and purifiers on either side of the boundary between « races » claim monopoly on the right to handle such contacts with the enemy. And as a political conflict is resolved into an encounter between two people, the enemy who declares himself to be your enemy ceases to be an enemy. To nationalists like Garvey and Muhammad, the Nazi and the Klansman are to be preferred to the liberal because they are open and honest about their racialized beliefs. At least you know where you are with a Klansman.

What brought together the UNIA, a spiritual movement dedicated to the uplift of Africans in the diaspora, and the Klan, a movement dedicated to their elimination, was land: a sovereign territory, a national homeland to legitimate their aspirations. The whites have their country; blacks can and must have one, too. Marcus Garvey, Jr., put this point with disarming clarity in a 1974 anthology organized as a tribute to his father:

African National Socialism postulates that the children of the Black God ofAfrica have a date with destiny. We shall recreate the glories of ancient Egypt, Ethiopia and Nubia. It is natural that the children of motherAfrica scattered in the great diaspora will cleave together once more. It seems certain that the world will one day befaced with the black cry for an African « Anschluss » and the resolute demandfor African « Lebensraum. »

* * *

The present moment is a turning point in the political lives of African-descended people around the world. The emancipation of South Africa – unfinished though it may be – provides a timely opportunity to reconsider ship between Africa’s future. African countries are still exploited and excluded, but the nature of oppression has changed. The patterns of nineteenth-century imperialism have receded. New battles over health, technology, ecology, and debt have emerged to transform our understanding of African political conflicts.

In the nominally postcolonial present, the desire for liberation – the center of black political striving for nearly two hundred years, from slavery to colonialism to apartheid – no longer finds an object. It is difficult to answer fundamental questions: « Freedom from what ? » « Liberty to accomplish what ? » This reflection occasions further questions: What are the politics of decolonization in an age without colonies ? Is anti-imperialist consciousness possible in an era that lacks the explicitly racist empires of the nineteenth century ? Ultimately, we must confront the limits of the idea of liberation and reevaluate those fundamental modern notions: freedom and revolution.

To complicate matters further, political and ideological divisions set down in earlier times have been blurred in the last decade. In 1994, the leaders of Bophuthatswana, apartheid South Africa’s homeland for ethnic Tswana, summoned the white supremacist Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging (AWB) to their defense, effecting a disastrous bond across the color line. On the other hand, the ultra-right British National Front embraced Louis Farrakhan, praising him as « a Godsend to all races and cultures » and distributing leaflets in support of his Nation of Islam (NOI). In 1988, National Front representatives visited a NOI mosque in Washington, D. C., to study its antidrug programs.

Around the same time, the National Front magazine Nationalism Today interviewed another African American – a Florida native named Osiris Akkebala, « an elder of the Pan African International Movement » (PAIN). Akkebala told them that his organization supported the separation of the races in accordance with the law of God, and he condemned marriage between black and white because it « results in racial genocide. »

Fraternal relations between these two ultranationalist groups appeared to be intact a decade later, when Akkebala resurfaced in Britain as a witness for the defense in the 1998 trial of British National Party activist Nick Griffin. Griffin, the publisher of the Rune, had been charged with incitement to racial hatred. Akkebala told the black British newspaper New Nation: « We see the BNP as our natural allies. We both see the necessity of preserving our distinct races. »

Indeed, two years earlier, the BNP had demonstrated in support of an unemployed twenty-six-year-old Bermuda-born chef and Rastafarian named Archie O’Brien. O’Brien was seeking the financial sponsorship of the British government for his plan to emigrate to Africa, preferably Ghana. Interviewed by the Guardian, he said, « I can’t express myself here. I can only express myself in Africa, surrounded by my own people and by nature…. It’s not for everyone. You have to reach a certain level of consciousness and be able to live off the land before you go there. Black people have to be prepared before they return to Africa. »

These contacts serve to heighten anxieties about the nature of race in a world where racial solidarity no longer trumps other collectivities based on age, religion, language, region, health, gender, or sexual preference. Such worries are all the more troubling in the current political context: it is increasingly difficult to imagine an alternative or a limit to mechanisms of the market, the ineffable cruelty of economic rationality. Can the idea that one is African, or part of an African diaspora, hold ground against the ever-expanding compass of capitalism ?

Innovations in technology and business widen the gulf between African people living in developed nations and their counterparts in less developed countries. Even in the developed countries, black people are experiencing new extremes of prosperity and immiseration: hence the « two worlds of black America » that Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and others have diagnosed. In the urban centers where diasporic populations often live, we have witnessed the demise of the common lifeworld that poor and privileged blacks once shared. With the advent of upward and outward mobility, rich and poor no longer live in the same communities, dwell in the same culture, or experience racism in the same ways.

Paradoxically, this divergence in black experience and history has been accompanied by a new emphasis on race. Assertions of a common, invariant racial identity cannot be grounded solely in the notion of a common culture. Rather, the biological codes of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries have returned in a more explicitly mythical guise. Leavened with New Age and occult ideas, these codes have produced tantalizing glimpses of a redemptive black superiority. (Interest in the biochemical properties of melanin and in the workings of distinct racialized forms of memory have been two of the most prominent themes in this revival.) Yet none of this has concealed or cured the scars of economic division: disputes over the moral, behavioral, and carnal attributes of blackness.

The controversies surrounding former heavyweight boxing champion and convicted rapist Mike Tyson are instructive here. In the summer of 1995 Tyson had just been released from prison, where he had served time for the rape of beauty queen Desiree Washington. It was proposed that Tyson make a heroic « home-coming » to Harlem. According to its sponsors, the public celebration would enable Tyson to « declare that he intends to lead a positive life, following in the footsteps of Joe Louis and Muhammad Ali. » The celebration included a street parade and a gala at the Apollo Theater. The black male athlete-hero was defended as a victim of antiblack conspiracy. But the event was immediately denounced. An organization called African Americans Against Violence attacked the event’s complicity with « the merchandising of violence » and its « breathtaking display of black-woman hate, greed, and collective irresponsibility. »

It is only a slight oversimplification to suggest that in the United States, Britain, and parts of the Caribbean, two conceptions of black nationalism have come into confrontation. These contesting nationalisms can be seen, for example, in the well-publicized panics over the vulgarity, misogyny, and nihilism of gangsta rap andJamaican dancehall; they provide valuable insights into the anxieties of class and gender that divide the black body politic. The first nationalism is putatively streetwise, working-class, and male. It often answers the accusation that it is cynically commercial by claiming the role of the war correspondent who vividly yet dispassionately reports unacceptable realities. The second nationalism is assertively feminist, bourgeois, moralistic; its adherents are confident that gangsta rappers (and their ilk) traffic in base and destructive stereotypes that can only be detrimental to communal interests.

In this contest of nationalisms, appeals to a shared blackness inevitably come up short. And yet both sides supplement their declining effectiveness with austere corrective regimes, regulating personal conduct and interpersonal contacts between men and women – and between parents and children. For both sides, the black family becomes the site of political struggle; black pride and black progress hinge on the status of black households. Family defines the limited form of political agency available for rebuilding the fading nation.

Of course, there are dissenting voices. Some black feminists have repudiated the identification of the race’s fortunes with the public integrity of its men (whether fathers or sons). And political conflicts over homosexuality have laid bare the fiction of spontaneous solidarity among blacks. These critiques, and the twin nationalisms that they oppose, have worked together to undermine faith in blackness as a meaningfil cultural and political force.

At the same time, black intellectuals and academics have achieved prominence in the United States and Britain. They serve as the vanguard of a new middle-class minority, a group that has substantially improved its own position. Whether these intellectuals pursue careers in the entertainment industry or the older, more respectable professions, they have deeply conflicted feelings for the black poor whose fate they have escaped, even as their understanding of the difference that « race » makes still depends on the lives of others less fortunate. The advent of this distinct class points once more toward the vexed issue of stratification within what can no longer be called the black community.

* * *

In 1994 the rapper Ice Cube achieved some success with « Street Fighter, » song from the soundtrack to the of the same name – a movie based on a popular video game. The song was a highly developed exercise in multimedia marketing: hip-hop, computer games, and cinema all came in one package. « Street Fighter » placed Ice Cube in foreground of a youth culture where music was no longer the central element. Apparently, there is no contradiction between Cube’s affiliation with the Nation of Islam and his roles in big-budget mainstream movies like Street Fighter (1994), Anaconda (1997), Dangerous Ground (1997), and Three Kings (1999).

Ice Cube, it may be recalled, was a founding member of the gangsta rap group N.W.A. In the early nineties his politicized raps on albums like AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted were given new depth by his 1991 statement that « the Nation of Islam has the best program for young men. » He quickly became one of the NOI’s highest-profile defenders. In 1994, Cube explained his belief in segregation to Abiodun Oyewole, of the proto-rap group Last Poets:

We got to separate. We really have to say, « O.K., whitefolks. You want to help us ? You go to your community and break down the walls. » When they’re in there talking in the boardroom, talking about us, you go correct them. Don’t come here picking up trash.

To judge by Ice Cube’s practice, however, the ban on interracial communication is selectively enforced. Separation may be an acceptable therapy (and politics) at the personal level, but intimacy is not illicit in the corporate spaces that are essential to Cube’s crossover success. The majority of hip-hop’s consumers are young white males; for the successful artist, economic contact across the color line can be tolerated as an unexceptional fact of life.

If Ice Cube’s separatist prescriptions are meant to apply to individuals, they apply still more to families. « You handle yours, we’ll handle ours, » he insisted in the same conversation. While the statement seems to be about segregation, it is also about fatherhood: who will be responsible for the children ? This remark points to an indictment of the present generation of black fathers – and, by extension, the present generation of black leaders. Replacing these ineffectual leaders is necessary to the project of racial recovery: to find new fathers, new leaders, who represent strength, not tenderness, insight, patience, love, sympathy, or care. Black leaders, Cube insists, « took their eyes off the prize in the 1970s » by « trying to make the public schools better instead of building our own schools. » Cube’s remark reveals the logic of privatization that supports his paternalism: racial identity can and should be privatized in exactly the same way as education. The motif of withdrawal – civic, personal, and familial – gives this new form of segregation its individualistic, entrepreneurial flair.

But Cube’s entrepreneurial paternalism – especially his public pride as the father of two young sons and one daughter – has another resonance here. In Cube’s rhetoric, fatherhood affirms the naturalness of hierarchy. Complete separation is for those who occupy the subordinate positions in this ideal scheme. Dads – and entrepreneurs – who enforce these rules can pass across the color line at will, as the needs of their careers dictate. They offer their subordinates and followers a fantasy of segregation while they consolidate its opposite for themselves: a network of economic, cultural, and political relationships created and sustained by the exigencies of the market. Everything is to be politicized, but only for those at the bottom of the heap.

* * *

In Britain, the United States, South Africa, Bosnia, and elsewhere, politically opposed forces have learned to bury their differences in order to join in a dismal dance of absolutism. I am asking you to venture into an unstable place where white supremacists, black nationalists, Klansmen, Hindu fundamentalists, Black Muslims, neo-Nazis, Zionists, and anti-Semites encounter one another as potential allies rather than as sworn foes. In the words of Primo Levi, it is « a grey zone, with ill-defined outlines which both separate and join the two camps of masters and servants. It possesses an incredibly complicated internal structure, and contains within itself enough to confuse our need to judge. » These enemies share a way of understanding the meaning of their own uniqueness; for them ethnicity and « race » serve as first principles of human existence. It may seem tempting to regard this shared enthusiasm for segregation as the spontaneous eruption of an elemental human antipathy toward Otherness. But arguments for racial and ethnic separation are not merely instinctive: they are the product of negotiation and compromise, three centuries of profane politics and complex history.

In this connection, the revolutionary rhetoric employed by black separatists – and their white supremacist counterparts – is misleading. Far from revolutionary, these appeals are, in fact, eminently conservative. Conservatism is a politics of cultural conservation; conservatives live in a world of racial, national, and ethnic distinctions. Differences of race and culture are grounded in biological half-truths generated by a vision of science that has been carefully crafted to account for the particularities of culture and identity that a conservative wishes to conserve. The conjunction of « race » and « culture » is essential – and yet it is so brittle that it is always in jeopardy. The wages of conservatism is vigilance.

* * *

The Nation of Islam has become the preeminent organization of racial solidarity in the U.S. because its ideology is less indebted to nationalism or civil rights than to an older and more authoritarian form of kinship – a regime that is intolerant, militaristic, and male. In black American organizations, the roots of this enduring pattern go back to Marcus Garvey and, perhaps, Booker T. Washington. Wilson Moses has noted the « pseudo-militarism of the Hampton-Tuskeegee traditions, where uniforms and drill practice re-emphasized the importance of a New Negro who would repudiate the legendary cultural softness of an excessively languid and aesthetic people. »

I would argue that this tradition is older still. In July 1848, Frederick Douglass first asked his famous question: « What Are the Colored People Doing for Themselves ? » His bold plea for a black abolitionism was tendered more in sorrow than in anger; as he tells us, it was addressed primarily to « comparatively idle and indifferent » free African American men. He measured their failure to act against the energetic way in which « the oppressed of the old world were holding public meetings, putting forth addresses, passing resolutions and in various other ways making their wishes known to the world. » Contrasting their indifference to politics with their great enthusiasm for fraternal ritual, Douglass lamented:

If we put forth a call for a National Convention, for the purpose of considering our wrongs, asserting our rights, and adopting measuresfor our mutual elevation and the emancipation of our enslaved fellow countrymen, we shall bring together about fifty; but if we call a grand celebration of odd-fellowship, or free-masonry, we shall assemble, as was the case a few days ago in New York, from four to five thousand – the expense of which alone would be from seventeen to twenty thousand dollars, a sum sufficient to maintain four or five efficient presses, devoted to our elevation and improvement. We should not say this of odd-fellowship and free-masonry, but that it is swallowing up the best energies of many of our best men, contenting them with the glittering follies of artificial display, and indisposing them to seek for solid and important realities. The enemies of our people see this tendency in us, and encourage it. The same persons who would puff such demonstrations in the newspapers, would mob us if we met to adopt measures for obtaining our rights. They see our weak points, and avail themselves of them to crush us. We are imitating the inferior qualities of and examples of white men, and neglecting superior ones. We do not pretend that all the members of odd-fellow societies and masonic lodges are indifferent to their rights and means of obtaining them; for we know the fact to be otherwise. Some of the best and brightest among us are numbered with those societies; and it is on this account that we make these remarks. We desire to see these noble men expending their time, talents and strengthfor higher and nobler objects than any that can be attained by the weak and glittering follies of odd-fellowship and free-masonry.

Some of Douglass’s frustration may have been aimed at his close associate 1920s Martin Delany, an enthusiastic Mason who just five years later published a pamphlet titled « The Origin and Objects of Ancient Freemasonry, Its Introduction into the United States, and Its Legitimacy Among Colored Men. » Delany was only one of many distinguished nationalists who found a home in the segregated, fraternal milieu of Prince Hall Masonry. Unlike Douglass, Delany had been born to freedom; he was therefore untroubled by the requirement that Masons be free, which disqualified the vast majority of the black American population.

Historians of black Freemasonry have pondered the movement’s class character, identified its military roots, and recognized its valuable role in building forms of political consciousness and solidarity among its adherents. Masonic insistence on the importance of ancient Egypt for modern civilization has been identified as a source of later black nationalist theologies and ideologies. But the Masons’ enduring influence in matters of political style and organization has been overlooked.

The German sociologist Georg Simmel is one of the few thinkers to address the psychological structure of fraternal organizations. « The secret society must seek to create a sort of life totality, » he wrote. « For this reason, it builds round its sharply emphasized purposive content a system of formulas, like a body round a soul, and places both alike under the protection of secrecy, because only thus does it become a harmonious whole in which one part protects the other. » The fraternal order of Prince Hall Masonry was a profound, if sometimes indirect, influence on the thinking of Marcus Garvey and of Noble Drew Ali, whose Moorish Science Temple flourished in the American Midwest during the 1910s and 1920s. Both men inspired W. D. Fard and Elijah Muhammad, the founders of the Nation of Islam. The institutional structures of the older fraternal societies collapsed in the 1930s, amid the same economic turmoil that gave birth to the Nation of Islam. But their legacy has been all the more powerful for its invisibility. The NOI transformed the teachings of the Prince Hall tradition to make it appear that Freemasonry itself was based upon the truths of Islam. It followed that white Freemasonry was a perversion of black ingenuity; the Masonic associations of so many of America’s founders attested, ironically, to the power of black thought. (Hence the obsession with William Thornton, the Prince Hall Mason who designed the Capitol in Washington, D. C.)

The contemporary resurgence of the Nation of Islam has fired the black political imagination, but the quest for a premodern form of racialized solidarity has taken other forms as well. Some of these may seem more attractive than the NOI’s overt authoritarianism. The magical production or simulation of community by means of uniform clothing, for instance, can be accomplished by a hat or a pair of boots made by the « 101% black-owned » Karl Kani clothing company as it is by the campy, bourgeois dignity of a bow tie or a colorful Kente cloth. The uniforms of today do not directly connect their wearers to would-be states in the straightforward way that the military dress of Garveyites – or the improvised Afrocentrist adornments of the Black Power movement – signaled such allegiances in the past. The privatized uniforms of the 1990s come with the multiple blessings of the corporate world; donning them in the pursuit of solidarity is a voluntary gesture of submission to an imagined community. But the existence of this community, and the solidarity of its members, cannot be confirmed.

* * *

The word fascism is a modern invention, an imprecise term seemingly remote from the concerns of black cultural politics. Its short, contested life has made it difficult to use, especially in the analysis of phenomena far removed from the European barbarities that gave birth to the word. Since the 1960s, fascism has been a debased coinage, employed as a vague and general term of abuse. The analysis of its several historical incarnations bogs down in debates about the attributes of the fascist state, the activities of fascist movements, the quality of fascist ideologies, and their complex relationship to the bourgeois democracies in which they usually emerge. But I think the dispute about the character and extent of fascism is part of what makes the term useful: fascism forces us to confront the moral and political limits of both democracy and modernity.

I think that there is a form of fascism operating in politics today. Even though ideological and conceptual signatures are hard to isolate, I believe that fascism does have a coherent ideological shape, in- formed by a combination of nationalism and a form of socialism. Of course, this socialism is of an anti-Marxist variety, but it does retain utopian and revolutionary attributes – although its ideal of fraternity is transformed into a viciously hierarchical caricature that silences competing claims for equality.

If we are to understand the place of fascism in politics today, we must first be alive to its cultural and psychological phases. Fascism without state power is different from fascism practiced as a means of modern, rational political administration. Still, though relatively few fascist movements have actually succeeded in taking power, the psychological and cultural dimensions of fascist politics can nevertheless all be present in the absence of fascist government, particularly in situations of civil strife.

In 1980s Britain, the racist right defended itself on the grounds that it was patriotic, not neo-Nazi. (Indeed, the skinheads who hounded me as a teenager, two decades earlier, did not invoke Hitler’s name or cause: to do so would have been treason to the Englishness that skinheads were defending against alien encroachment. It was only in the I970s, when the memory of the Great Patriotic War was in decline, that British skinheads became comfortable chanting « Sieg Heil. ») Similarly, while the Italian and German forms of fascism are aligned intellectually and organizationally with nationalism and authoritarianism, they are also associated with syndicalism, socialism, and environmentalism. Finally, we must acknowledge the links between the Nazi cause and thinkers like Martin Heidegger, Mies van der Rohe, Paul de Man, and Carl Gustav Jung.

I am not trying to erase the historical specificities of fascism or suggest that the imperfections of capitalist democracy necessarily lead to fascism. Fascism is exceptional; it differs from normality in kind, not degree. Nevertheless, the details of everyday life under the Nazi regime have a familiar look, as reconstructed through the painstaking labor of historians like George Mosse,  Detlev Peukert, Gisela Bock, Jill Stephenson, Alison Owings, Peter Adam, Michael Kater, and RobertWistrich. Volumes of moving testimony from other genocidal war zones demonstrate how swiftly exceptional brutality can emerge from within the seeming stability of normal life. There is a kinship among all supremacist regimes, and the eugenic racial science they deploy is always the same. Recognizing the complexity of these interconnections, we must work harder to find fascism’s characteristics as manifested in philosophy, aesthetics, and cultural criticism. This vigilance should be directed not only toward the possibility that past forms may recur but also toward recognizing the danger that fascism is still somehow pending – that fascism remains latent in any attempt to organize social life according to raciological principles. Given this risk, we should not seek a uniform, extrahistorical formula for fascism that would enable us to test for its presence or absence. Such a test would be blind to the complexity and mutability of these unsavory political phenomena.

Fascism is neither modernity’s repudiation nor its fulfillment, neither reason’s betrayal nor its affirmation. Events in Latin America, Indochina, southern Africa, and the Middle East have shown that Nazism is not the only form that fascism can take. Long ago, Emmanuel Levinas postulated a difference between the philosophy of Hitlerism and the philosophy of the Hitlerians. We would do well to draw similar distinctions in our consideration of contemporary fascist phenomena.

It is also difficult to determine how the unspeakable past should inform the meaning of fascism today. Fascists and their opponents harbor irreconcilable memories of fascism – most notably when the scholarship of Holocaust revisionists confronts the testimony of survivors and their families. Debate over what counts as fascism does not minimize the importance of knowing what really happened in the past. Rather, such debate serves to ground the recognition that neither easy exceptionalism nor simplistic notions of repetition are adequate for confronting the enduring power of fascism and racism.

Theoretical inquiries might also play a role in cultivating the skills necessary to recognize fascism when it appears without overt identification, or in places far away from the developed countries where we might be most on guard against its reappearance. After all, the first humans ever to be convicted of the crime of genocide were Africans – Jean-Paul Akayesu and Jean Kambanba, found guilty on October 2, 1998, of plotting and carrying out the race-based murder of their fellow Rwandans in 1994.

Moreover, an emphasis on the genocidal outcomes of past fascism should not diminish our sensitivity to the fascist potential of familiar patterns of government, justice, thought, and action. Notions of absolute ethnicity – and the sense of culture as something organic, which can be grown or husbanded by the state and owned as a form of property by individuals – are an example of this possibility. Members of the dominant social group in a racialized society need not imagine themselves to be superior: they need only assert unbridgeable difference to awaken fascist solidarity.

Critics of this argument will protest that it is a luxury we cannot afford, a dangerous distraction from the fight against self-identified fascists. Murky speculation, after all, might end in dispute rather than action, or in the politically paralyzing discovery that the preconditions for fascism exist everywhere. But I would argue that by restricting the term to cases where unbroken continuity with earlier fascism can be established, we blind ourselves to contemporary dangers and diminish our sense of what antifascist action might mean. Antifascism should be a future-oriented politics, rather than a defensive operation against violence and terror.

Those of us tied by affinity and kinship to histories of suffering and victimization have an additional responsibility to imagine democracy and justice in indivisible, nonsectarian forms. We have a special obligation to be aware that barbarity can appear anywhere, at any time. Histories of suffering must not be reduced to the private experiences of their victims. Mourning is only one of many practices of memory, and it involves more than remembering. Bolstered by a cautious, strategic universalism, we should recognize that stories of suffering can belong to anyone who dares to possess them and employ them in good faith.

Whether or not you accept this expanded conception of fascism, ask yourself this: What does it mean to seek a pastoral and permanently innocent ethnic or racial identity ? Can such an identity anchor a unique culture that is not just divorced from the practice of evil but permanently fortified against its very possibility ? The desire for this kind of particularity is a troubling feature of contemporary black politics. The myths of essential innocence shield their supposed beneficiaries from the complex moral choices that define human experience and insulate them from the responsibility to act well and choose wisely. This kind of thinking would usher black politics into a desert: a flattened moral landscape bereft of difficult decisions, where cynicism would rule effortlessly in the guise of naturalized morality. Hidden within that exaltation of biologically grounded innocence is a promise that the political lives of the innocent will eventually be emancipated from moral constraints. Innocence makes the difficult work of judgment and negotiation irrelevant. And wherever that innocence is inflated by the romance of « race, » nationhood, and ethnic fraternity, fascism will flourish.

The capacity to perpetrate evil is not a modern phenomenon, but the scale and power of the modern nation-state expand and condition it. We must deal not only with the old dangers of occultism and irrationality but also with new evils represented by the rational application of irrationality. Perhaps the most insidious element of the fascist imagination is its utopian desire for a simpler world characterized by sameness and certainty. But homogeneity and hypersimilarity are the principles of hierarchical, authoritarian, and antimodern bonding. Solidarity is simulated in silent, spectacular rituals that dissimulate the differences within the totality. The modern impulse to recreate and perfect the world is trivialized when it is reduced to a narrowly racial project.

A susceptibility to the appeal of authoritarian irrationalism has become part of what it means to be a modern person. This susceptibility cleaves to the dream of enlightenment and autonomy as its secret sharer. To recognize that blacks are not, after all, a permanently innocent people, a people forever immune to this dismal allure, is only to embrace our status as modern folk who can think and act for ourselves.


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