On Racism and Antisemitism
A few months after Bernie’s “democratic socialism” speech, he published an essay in the left wing journal Jewish Currents on antisemitism, where he picked up on some of the same antifascist themes. Antifascists famously call antisemitism “the socialism of fools,” indicating just what we’ve discussing—that rather than an “ancient hatred,” antisemitism is a historically specific narrative that is deployed in order to feed the ressentiment of an alienated populace with a story that might divert them from true justice.
Bernie didn’t speak about antisemitism via the language of liberal rights, but rather he used the language of solidarity:
We need this solidarity desperately now. All over the world—in Russia, in India, in Brazil, in Hungary, in Israel, and elsewhere—we see the rise of a divisive and destructive form of politics. We see intolerant, authoritarian political leaders attacking the very foundations of democratic societies. These leaders exploit people’s fears by amplifying resentments, stoking intolerance and inciting hatred against ethnic and religious minorities, fanning hostility toward democratic norms and a free press, and promoting constant paranoia about foreign plots. We see this very clearly in our own country. It is coming from the highest level of our government. It is coming from Donald Trump’s tweets, and from his own mouth.
But what is so wrong with arguing for liberal individual rights?
Here it’s useful to pick up on a distinction that was well made in a recent podcast episode of the The Dig. Daniel Martinez HoSang and Joe Lowndes describe here the difference between a liberal antiracism on one hand, and a more radical one on the other. The latter is what I am going to term “antifascist antiracism.”
Liberal antiracism isn’t a bad thing. It rejects intolerance, and looks at the individuals of a contract-based society and states that each one should be equal to the other in the eyes of the law, and in the eyes of every other contract-dealing individual. It celebrates “diversity” in that it understands—arguably up to a limit—the benefits that cultural pluralism can bring to a society that celebrates the exchange of ideas and points of view.
Antifascist antiracism, however, goes a bit further. Rather than simply permit the flourishing of diverse groups of people, antifascist antiracism says that we need to ensure the flourishing of the people. The reasons for this are both humanistic and solidaristic. It says that individuals deserve happiness, but also that a threat to one group’s happiness is an obstacle to the happiness of others.
On the surface, solidaristic thinking can seem self-serving. Are we saying that we only value groups unlike ourselves because allying with them serves our common interests? Decidedly not. Antifascist antiracism, I contend, does importantly reject the idea of tolerance which on its face, which presents toleration as simply the idea that everyone has the right to exist. Such a tolerance, embedded in the modern world’s liberal individualism, says that we should kick a black homeless person, but we should do so because they are homeless, and not because they are black. It’s the ideology that sees a sign on a restaurant that reads “All races, genders, religions, nationality are welcome,” alongside a sign that reads “bathrooms are for customers only.” To reject the ideas and material circumstances that lead to fascism, we reject the very liberal individualist mentality that sees everyone as atomized, and disconnected.
To say more about antifascist antiracism, HoSang and Lowndes suggest an important point—that there’s a difference between rejecting difference and rejecting race. They remind us to pay attention to the historical processes by which race has been made. Antifascist antiracism thus can celebrate that different people and different peoples have different points of view, experiences, and traditions, while at the same time understanding how particular categories that have been constructed through racialization—and that includes those of black and brown people, but also other categories, including gay and straight, and poor white as well.
While other candidates have presented plans for permitting inclusion of minorities into liberal individualism—offering convoluted benefits to small business owners in minority communities, for example—Bernie’s emphases on workplace democracy and worker solidarity reflect his understanding of the historical causes of precarity, division, and scapegoating.
Celebrate difference, but don’t fetishize or de-historicize differentiation. It’s this point that may be what Bernie is implicitly making when he is asked to speak about his own Jewish-American identity. In doing this, he is following in a long line of Jewish thinkers and activists that have sought to define or to live a kind of “rooted cosmopolitanism.”
Internationalism vs. “Patriotism”
If we look at the image that accompanied “part one” of this essay, we notice that one of the signs in the picture reads “The Needle Trades Workers Pledge Their Solidarity with the German Workers in Their Struggle Against Fascism.”
Fascism, of course, needs hyper-nationalism. The way that fascist leaders strike their bargains—with the petit-bourgeoisie and ultimately with a portion of the workers—is by appealing to an identity other than class, and to construct a “common cause” in which poor people can be taught to believe. Furthermore, the strongest fascist states have sustained themselves by extracting wealth from abroad, or from an internal “other,” in order to provide the kind of material rewards to the nation that will keep the lower classes pacified, even as fascism seeks to maintain social hierarchies and enrich the top.
Internationalism then is the opposite of fascism, and also its bane. If “workers of the world” see more in common with one another than with the social classes of their own state that seek to exploit them, the whole game is up. It’s little wonder that when fascists get into power, their first targets are internationalists, and not necessarily racialized minorities.
(It may be worth noting that I am using the word “internationalism” in the centuries-old tradition of socialists. It appears as though commentators today are more likely than they used to be to use the word loosely, as synonyms of globalism, neoliberalism, or interventionism.)
Bernie Sanders introduced his immigration plan in November of 2019. It’s important to note that his plan did not spring entirely from his mind. His campaign made a point to acknowledge that a number of staffers—many of them immigrants themselves—had a hand in crafting his policy. Nevertheless, I think there’s a coherent antifascist perspective reflected in the plan, as evidenced by its internationalist bent, and that this perspective coincides with Bernie’s own rhetoric.
There are two striking points in his proposal. First, he addresses free trade agreements as the cause of some of the alleged crisis in immigration. Second, he includes comprehensive discussion of workplace protections and workplace democracy in his plans on immigration.
Other candidates discuss immigration as something that “grows the economy,” a benefit because of “high-skilled” workers that might arrive, something that increases America’s “diversity,” or just “the right thing to do.” And to be clear, we should have no quarrel with that last point. But Bernie is the only candidate to understand immigration in the terms of proletarian internationalism, the understanding that capital, especially in an age of globalization, can’t be defeated simply within one country’s borders; the understanding that an injury to one is an injury to all; and the understanding that oligarchies threaten all of the precarious and/or working peoples of the world.
Other candidates also continue to push a nationalist agenda. One clear example of this is Elizabeth Warren’s program for “economic patriotism.” Her plans feed the same hopes for a “return of manufacturing” that Trump fed to the workers in the midwest, at corporations such as Carrier. Warren’s plans for “economic patriotism” are reflected in her environmental plans too, where she suggests developing technology that other countries would be required to purchase, and makes no mention of how a global Green New Deal might ameliorate the global imbalances of power that globalization and “development” have fostered. As was reported in the Nation, Sanders takes a completely tactic—one that aims to help the poorer countries of the world in their shifts away from carbon-intensive industries and practices. This would have the dual benefit of stabilizing and strengthening democracies around the world as well as mitigating climate change on the global scale on which it is needed.
I’ve run out of time on this essay and I want to get it posted before Super Tuesday, so I’ll finish here, With a quick endnote.
The most useful books on fascist and antifascist theory, for me personally, are:
- Christopher Vials, Haunted by Hitler: Liberals, the Left, and the Fight against Fascism in the United States (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2014).
- Carl Boggs, Fascism Old and New (New York: Routledge, 2018).
For more on the construction of race, and its relationship to class, there’s a number of excellent resources on this, but perhaps no one is more provocative than Barbara and Karen Fields, in this podcast from a few years back.
And a recent book on the subject is:
- Asad Haider, Mistaken Identity: Race and Class in the Age of Trump (London: Verso, 2018).
Finally, I’ll say that for the ultimate layperson—for a true starting point—Naomi Klein’s first post-Trump book might still be the best introduction to some of themes mentioned here, even if she doesn’t name antifascism explicitly:
- Naomi Klein, No Is Not Enough: Resisting Trump’s Shock Politics and Winning the World We Need (Chicago, IL: Haymarket Books, 2017).