Many Americans, and not only those on the left, were rightfully outraged in August by the sight of hundreds of torch-bearing “white nationalists”—i.e., white supremacists, explicit racists and fascists, the KKK, and Stormfront—marching through the streets of Charlottesville to protest the removal of a monument to a warrior “hero” of the slave system of the Confederacy. And hundreds of counter-demonstrators, from various political and religious tendencies, were on the scene to make that outrage known.
The melee that resulted, which ended in the killing of 32-year-old Heather Heyer, brought to a boil the debate about free speech and aggressive physical violence that has been percolating among various corners of what's called "the left" in this country since the sucker punch of Richard Spencer during his on-the-street TV interview in January.
The question is: In our country today, is it acceptable, even necessary, to deny right-wing, characterizable-as-“fascist,” political opponents the right to express their views in public, with whatever means necessary, whether that be legal censorship or preemptive physical force?
There is now a significant cohort of people—40% of millennials, according to Pew Research—who answer that question “Yes.”
Of course, some of those answering “Yes” would qualify that they only endorse legal and non-violent means of restricting objectionable political “hate speech.” But, especially since Charlottesville, the “antifa” groups who brook no such niceties are in the vanguard of this movement, setting the tone and agenda, and challenging the weaker-minded to accept the street-fighting antifa position as the unavoidable logical consequence of that “Yes.” Antifa activists not only do not shy from starting fights, they pride themselves on their willingness to do so, and argue that it’s only that willingness that will effectively resist the rising tide of fascism and move other left-of-liberals in their direction.
That “Yes” answer is made even more significant by being given op-ed space in prominent liberal establishment media.1 “Liberal” is a remarkable word here, since for many decades it’s been conservatives and the right who have rejected and vilified organizations like the ACLU that defend the rights of minorities and dissidents to express unpopular opinions. It’s now the establishment conservative and to-the-right-of-conservative media that poses as the champion of free speech.
My answer to that question is: “No.” I do not agree that right-wing political opponents, even those characterizable as “fascist,” should be denied the right to express their views, either by force of law or by physical aggression from groups identified as antifa leftists. I think such a position in the United States today is pernicious in principle and politically dangerous.
In this post, I am going to focus on the physical aggression part of this position. I’ll talk about the more general issue of “free speech” in another post.
First of all, some “nots.”
Left groups and demonstrators have the absolute right to, and I think should, defend themselves and resist any attacks with whatever force they consider necessary and politically appropriate. I am not criticizing defensive force.
There is no “antifa” organization or leadership, so I am not, and cannot be, characterizing or dismissing all actions taken by every group self-identified or identified by the media as such.
In that regard, I find some actions of such groups in Charlottesville, like the defense of non-violent protestors as experienced by Cornel West and reported by Melinda Henneberger and Dahlia Lithwick, to be admirable. Other actions, like the chasing and beating of unarmed protestors just for being there (”Get the fuck out!”), and, as Leighton Woodhouse observed, “command[ing] photographers not to take their pictures, .. physically block[ing] them from doing so, and if they persisted,… smash[ing] their equipment and assault[ing] them.” I reject as bullying, dangerous, and politically damaging.2
So, I’m not using the word “antifa” to refer to any particular group or any particular tactic, but to those who insist on the strategic principle of stopping political expression by those whom they identify as “fascist,” by force of law or by physical aggression.
I also do not want to characterize antifa activists as the ethico-political, “mirror-image” equivalent of fascists. No, “both sides” are not equally “evil” (a word that should be excised from the vocabulary of secular leftism). What you are fighting for is more important than the tactics you choose, and those who fight for equality are not as bad as those who advocate racism, no matter what tactics they may share.
As can any well-meaning activists, however, they can be stupider, and, in specific contexts, more dangerous to the political goals of the egalitarian and socialist left than some right-wing actors. Their tactics and strategy can work to impede the urgent and crucial task for the American left—that of building mass political support.
I think that Antifa activists are fighting a battle against an enemy deserving of contempt, but undeserving of the attention and intense energy being directed against it, energy on which that enemy only feeds. In the process, they are ignoring other, more crucial battles against powerful and dangerous enemies, and throwing away a crucial tool (free speech) needed to fight all those enemies. For me, antifa action falls into the category defined by one of history’s shrewdest quips: “It’s worse than a crime; it’s an error.”
Nor does my position derive from an absolute insistence on “non-violence.” In fact, I dislike the casual “imaginary pacifism” that crops up repeatedly as a constituent of American liberal and leftish ideology, and I have made this point emphatically in a number of essays on Counterpunch and on my web site, in the course of making a left argument for gun rights. The radical social and political changes we need to make in this country will require combat of many kinds against entrenched powers who never have and never will concede to moral suasion alone. I maintain the perspective that a socialist movement doesn’t just seek to express itself, but to win the battle for democratic power, and that, whether it ever comes to it or not, a serious revolutionary movement must be prepared to use force to win that battle.
Indeed, we should recognize that the most militant and effective of “non-violent” tactics are themselves uses of physical force (a word I prefer to “violence”), however self-limited. Sit-ins, with people linking arms or chaining themselves to, each other or to immovable objects, are attempts to force, with bodies, changes of policy. Everybody understands the passive-aggression of: “To protest an injustice, we’re going to disrupt some necessary social function, provoking you to manhandle us. We want to use the perceived righteousness of our passivity vs. your aggression to help demonstrate the righteousness of what we are seeking vs. what you are defending.” Doesn’t everyone cotton on to this now that rightists are starting to do it?
In many ways, traditional non-violent protest tactics—even mass demonstrations—are showing their limits. At this point, everybody in America has seen this play a thousand times, and probably been in it a few. All the characters know their marks, their lines, and their cues. The regime is completely familiar with it, and for the most part controls the production from curtain to curtain. I certainly have no more interest in going to demonstrations where I’m literally penned in for hours. There’s nothing in that which threatens the political, let alone the socio-economic, regime in any serious way.
So, it’s not the antifa willingness to fight, or even to start a fight when necessary, that’s a problem. Who starts the fight, and who uses which weapons, is not as important as what they're fighting for, and whether their fighting strategy is more likely to help win or lose the decisive battle.
So, yes, we need a new, much more challenging, script, and groups like Black Bloc, Redneck Revolt, and antifa are making us all think about it.
But we are just beginning to think about that, and, even though militant non-violent resistance cannot by itself revolutionize entrenched state-supported political and socio-economic structures, it is still a powerful political tactic—very effective for building popular support against unjust and oppressive ideologies and practices, by state and non-state actors. That’s because, despite any demurrals of cross-bearing clergy or stick-wielding antifa, it is a use of political and physical force, and should be respected as such. In some form, it is still the most effective mode of protest available for leftists, no matter how radical their goals, in the United States today.
The crucial element in all of the above is building popular support, the most potent and important weapon for revolutionary struggle; and the most important target for that struggle is the capitalist state, with its policies and structures, which comprises the most powerful and pernicious agent of injustice and destruction. In terms of that task, I think the left in America—by which I mean committed socialist (or at least anti-capitalist) leftists who are well over Democratic Party capitalist and imperialist “liberalism”—has to take as its starting point Adolph Reed Jr.’s injunction:
The crucial tasks for a committed left in the United States now are to admit that no politically effective force exists and to begin trying to create one. ….There are no magical interventions, shortcuts, or technical fixes. We need to reject the fantasy that some spark will ignite the People to move as a mass. We must create a constituency for a left program — and that cannot occur via MSNBC or blog posts or the New York Times. It requires painstaking organization and building relationships with people outside the Beltway and comfortable leftist groves.It cannot occur via antifa tactics, either. Sucker-punching tactics are not the new spark that will ignite the people’s revolutionary fervor. It’s foolish to think that the failure of previous non-violent protests to change state structures can be blamed on the failure of the tactics, rather than the failure of the underlying politics in other domains. Those mass movements either did not achieve popular support, or, more poignantly, they did, but that support was coopted and channeled into an electoral theater and a political leadership that undermined and effectively annulled their goals, and turned energetic popular opposition back into apathy and acceptance. The transition from millions of antiwar protestors on the streets against the Vietnam and Iraq wars to <crickets> in the face of Obama’s Libya-Syria-Yemen-drones-around-the-world wars, illustrates that sad political dynamic.
Anitfa tactics do nothing to overcome that. In fact, antifa is usually fighting for principles that have widespread, biparitsan national acceptance, and in venues where they are supported not only by the population, but by government authority and political elites.
For all the left’s weakness in terms of changing national structures of social oppression, it has—in specific, delimited domains where left-liberalism dominates politically and culturally (elite college campuses, “Blue” cities and regions, influential liberal media, etc.)—won significant cultural and ideological battles that translate into the hegemony of egalitarian discourses and practices, and the shaming of others.
It’s disingenuous to deny this. Just as it’s disingenuous for the right to pretend that, in most other domains of economic and political importance—“Red” cities and statehouses, powerful right-wing media, the military and police, corporations and public economic institutions, etc.—they don’t have effective ideological as well as political hegemony.
In either of these domains, expressions of minority opinions or behaviors can result in ideological shaming and attempts at administrative and/or legal sanction. “Political Correctness” works both ways, and it’s extremely disingenuous for the right to pretend that “PC” is most powerfully and extensively, let alone uniquely, practiced by the left. What are the rules for the national anthem? Flag pins? “God Bless the United States of America”?
As those questions indicate, it’s also disingenuous for liberals and conservative to pretend that there are not many ideological mandates that they conjointly enforce, and that that bipartisan agreement covers all the fundamental structures of American capitalism and imperialism—as in, you know: "We're capitalists, and that's just the way it is."
Well, one of the cultural and ideological tropes that has become an accepted part of the bipartisan ideological consensus is racial, ethnic, and sexual equality.
The militant non-violent actions of the civil-rights movements of the sixties, as well as the threats posed by its more radical armed wings, did build popular as well as elite support of the principle of African-American equality. There were real victories on the plane of legal and political equality, which included the dismantling of the explicit Jim Crow system, and the nurturing of an African-American elite in the political, cultural, and ideological life of the country—the laudable but limited goal to which the civil-rights movement was relentlessly steered.
That movement for equality was extended to the present day, winning similar laudable victories of political, cultural, and ideological inclusion for other previously marginalized groups and “identities,” culminating most recently in the widespread acceptance of same-sex marriage.
From Brown v. Board of Education to Obergefell v. Hodges, and from The Cosby Show to Will and Grace—the latter two cultural texts being at least as important as the former—American attitudes changed significantly. As superficial as it may be, in public discourse, it’s become de rigueur to profess belief in racial and gender equality, and to fear being shamed if you don’t. It’s disingenuous to deny this:
By any reasonable measure, American attitudes have become steadily more liberal over time. A summary of opinion polling since the 1970s shows a “sweeping, fundamental change in norms regarding race”, with steady declines on practically every key measure of racism. Surveys on attitudes towards women reveal an identical decline in sexism. More belatedly, a similar transformation happened in attitudes towards LGBT people. Two-thirds of Americans now support gay marriage, up from just 40 percent in 2009.These transformed attitudes were absorbed into an establishment-endorsed project of representational equality that integrated identity elites into the “normal” cultural and political life of the country, and propelled them into the ranks of police chiefs, mayors, governors, and even the presidency. Alvaro Reyes points out
the Obama presidency was undoubtedly the product of a long civil rights era that had sought to break down the rather explicit forms of white supremacy …. In this respect, the civil rights movement was incredibly successful—consider the fact that in the mid-1960s there were some 600 elected Black officials in the United States and that by the time of Obama’s presidential campaign there were over 10,000!Of course, none of that—not even the presidency—improved the deteriorating quality of life for the majority of people of all these identity groups, because none of it touched the fundamental structure of the inequality-producing, capitalist social economy. As Glenn Greenwald said of same-sex marriage, these changes were effected in ways that do not “threaten entrenched ruling interests …undermine oligarchs, the National Security State, or the wildly unequal distribution of financial and political power.”
Certainly, none of that mitigated the damage being done to the multi-racial working class—and disproportionally to Black and Latino workers—to which the majority of all these groups belong.
Indeed, as Zach Heller points out, our first African-American president: “orchestrated … the greatest transfer of wealth in the history of the world: $4.5 trillion dollars was gifted to Wall Street banks, widening the gap between rich and poor more than under any president before.”
And, as Reyes makes clear, the worst effects of all that fell on people of color:
the public image of “racial progress” touted by the Democratic Party generally and Black and Latino politicians in particular runs up against a brutally grim reality. …[T]he racial wealth gap today is far worse than it was 30 years ago: …Black and Latino communities lost between 30% and 40% of their wealth in the late 2000s; …median Black household wealth is less than 7% that of white household wealth; and …if you are a single woman of color your median total wealth is a grand total of five dollars!
Five dollars?! Hey, that may be five too many. According to the Institute for Policy Studies: “if the racial wealth divide is left unaddressed, median Black household wealth is on a path to hit zero by 2053 and median Latino household wealth is projected to hit zero twenty years later.”
So the advances of neo-liberal identity-politics developed concomitantly with neo-liberal socio-economic assaults on the multiracial working class, which inevitably had worse effects on Black and Latino workers. Per Reyes, it transformed “larger and larger portions of these communities… into ‘surplus populations’ with little or no relation to the increasingly financialized global economy, and contained by swelling police forces and disproportionally warehoused in the prison system.”
Thus, the neo-liberal representational victories do not at all disprove Adolph Reed’s point above. Through the relentless political and ideological work of the ruling class, these victories were won, not as victories of the “left,” but of “the left-wing of neoliberalism.” They are not the opposite, but the obverse, of the complete absence of any truly radical left as a “politically effective force.”
All of this, as Reyes remarks, was abetted by the “strange marriage between Black and Latino politicians and the neoliberal agenda dominant within the Democratic Party,” and there was no “left” in or out of that ménage that was capable of offering any effective resistance.
In situations like Charlottesville, we have to recognize that it’s municipal governments, into which those identity elites have been integrated, and which in no way threaten ruling-class interests, that have and are using the power to do things like removing Confederate statues, even in “red” ex-Confederate states.
In this regard, antifa is operating in domains where what the right calls the “left” (neo-liberal identity-politics) is operating from a position of relative strength and established power. Thus, with gleeful schadenfreude the alt-right mocks the identity-politics left as the establishment (which it is part of), and presents itself as the edgy, rebellious insurgency—as in the specious but discomfiting video rant where Paul Joseph Watson insists, presenting Johnny Rotten in support, that “conservatism is the new counterculture and populism is the new punk.” (Watson, like many leftists today, seems to presume populism must be right-wing.)
The socialist left may have no political victories that have reversed the onslaught of material harm being done to the multiracial working class, but the neo-liberal identity-politics “left” won the American culture wars, not the racist right. That’s precisely what infuriates the alt-right (defined as a frankly racist and/or incipiently fascist movement) and what it is trying to change.
The new “alt-right” is operating from a position of weakness, and is furiously trying to gin up a counterattack—a kind of culture war Battle of the Bulge—by white people in an effort to revive retrograde social attitudes that have been thoroughly discredited.
It’s disingenuous to deny this. As Lee Jones put it: “When everyone from Mitt Romney to Bernie Sanders agrees with you, you are kicking at an open door.” Jones also reminds us of the historical trajectory:
The membership of vile organisations like the Ku Klux Klan has collapsed, from a peak of three to six million in the 1920s to around 6,000 today. Only 10 percent of the US public admit to supporting the “alt right” (only 4 percent “strongly”), while 83 percent say it is “unacceptable to hold neo-Nazi or white supremacist views”. Too high and not high enough, one might say. But the fact is that the far-right is a lunatic fringe.And Reyes
I think it is a mistake to believe that there has been some sudden and sweeping upsurge of neo-Nazi organizing since Trump’s election, which is how this situation has often been portrayed in the media... despite the fact that we have to take [the] growth [of extreme right-wing groups] seriously, we must also recognize that in a country of 323 million people, any movement that can only muster 500 adherents for a national convergence is a movement with an extremely limited operational capacity. If we don’t pay attention to this fact, then the overwhelming media coverage these events have received may very well make us think that there is already a neo-Nazi around every corner, creating a sense of panic and paralysis that, at this point, is out of proportion to the dimensions of this particular problem.
[B]y overstating the threat of organized neo-Nazi violence we risk missing how the more mundane operations of a structural white supremacy have, since the civil rights movement of the 1960s, proliferated within the mainstream political parties.Antifa may insist, in a way that amplifies the agita of the #Resistance, that there’s a new variable in town, which does create an imminent fascist threat to the presumably non-fascist status quo: Donald Trump. He has emboldened white nationalism in his campaign, and threatens to enact various racist and retrograde policies. He will enable a resurgence of the explicitly racist and fascist right. So everybody who supports Trump or wears a MAGA hat is a target for assault.
By all means, let’s confront Trump’s horrible policies, and all newly-energized expressions of racism and fascism, with mass, militant demonstrations of our own, as was done in Boston. Outnumbering the right 10-to-1 is a clear political victory. Let’s also recognize that Donald Trump has a small and shrinking core of support, that most people who voted for him are less-than-fascist, that he is increasingly despised, caged, and threatened by the ruling elites of both parties, and that the more he talks, the worse it gets for him and his most intransigent supporters.
Donald Trump’s electoral victory doesn’t signify resurgent fascism of ordinary Americans; it signifies their abysmal political confusion and their increasing and justified distrust of elite-managed politics, conservative and liberal. Trump is only the most obvious pimple, along with the raging acne of reactionary governors, state legislators, and potential post-impeachment presidents, that has erupted from the infectious brew of contemptuous elite disregard for masses of “flyover” deplorables and the relentless “Foxification” ideological campaign of right-wing media, brought to a head with a corrupt electoral system. Did Donald Trump create that problem? Is antifa helping to solve it?
People marching around with torches and swastikas, chanting “Blood and Soil!” and “Jews will not replace us!” will not get any significant support among the populace (or the ruling media and political elite, for that matter). People who get beaten while lying on the ground will. The only thing that could improve white nationalists’ standing among the populace is to make them perceivable as victims of bullies.
That’s why liberal media were initially favorable to antifa groups in Charlottesville—because the killing of Heather Heyer made the right the aggressors. But if antifa pursues its strategy, there is going to be a Charlottesville that goes the other way, with somebody on the “other” side getting seriously hurt, paralyzed, or killed.
And, if consistent, antifa doesn’t care. If you’re engaging in a process of seeking fights anywhere and everywhere, you must accept the near-inevitability that something like that is going to happen to a right-wing protestor (or to a bystander, or to someone trying to stop the fighting), and have concluded in advance both that such an outcome is ethically justified and that the likely political blowback is worth it. (Unless you just haven’t thought about it at all.)
If you start a fight, you can’t in good faith be surprised about your casualties, or pretend you didn’t mean or aren’t responsible for your opponents’. You can’t feign surprise at the damage, both to persons and to the political calculus of sympathy that the fight you started caused.
In any situation, offensive tactics have to be based on a rigorous calculation of the balance of political and material/military forces, on preparation and training, on carefully choosing your battles (fighting only those you can win or must fight), and on the indispensable advice of a most astute analysts on such matters, Mike Tyson: "Everyone has a game plan until they get smacked in the face."
Excuse me if I don’t think antifa is there yet.
It didn’t take more than a week for the media and the elite’s sympathy for the street-fighting “left” in Charlottesville to become denunciations of “left-wing domestic terrorism.” They’re preparing pre-emptively for their assault on any future left-wing militancy.
Let’s not misjudge the strategic political situation. If we had a threatening left movement that had already built mass popular support, in a situation of revolutionary crisis, and we had to launch an offensive attack on the capitalist state and fascist attack dogs it was using to crush us, that would be another story. But we’re not; we’re in a situation where left and right groups are maneuvering to dislodge masses of people from identification with and submission to the “radical center,” which maintains a strong ideological and political grip on the working class (i.e., everybody who doesn’t have a decent life from capital income, who has to sell his/her labor-power to a capitalist every week to live at all).
It’s certainly true that the smile has been wiped off the American state, The whole felicitous post-WWII construct of the liberal, democratic, capitalist but class-neutral, welfare state has reverted to its core class function, in ways that have become too visible to ignore. It has become all-too obvious that, as Etienne Balibar put it over thirty years ago, the modern capitalist state, ours included, is “expressly organized as the State of pre-emptive counter-revolution.”
But in the U.S., it’s the “radical center” that—politically, via the party duopoly and, ideologically, via the mainstream media—controls that state, and seeks pre-emptively to crush or co-opt any nascent political movements on the radical left or right that might arise in response to the deteriorating social conditions and increased awareness.
That “center”—which includes the “strange marriage between Black and Latino politicians and the neoliberal agenda dominant within the Democratic Party”—does not yet need or want the help of the radical right, and would prefer to do without its destabilizing effects. That’s not how the American ruling class rules.
Nobody’s going to impose a white nationalist program in the United States—not only because extant social attitudes of the populace as well as demographic realities (and the militant resistance to any such program they imply) make it impossible, but also because the American ruling class will not permit it, or the civil war that any attempt at it would entail. It’s silly to think that either is on the horizon, but it’s important to recognize that the ruling elite wants neither a fascist nor a communist takeover of the United States. It wants precisely to pose as the neutral, rational buffer between the two. That’s how it rules.
Which is exactly what antifa tactics are helping it do. Antifa street-fighting will not lead to fascists being defeated by an anarchist-socialist-communist movement, but it will inevitably provoke the intervention of the capitalist state—an eventuality for which antifa does nothing to prepare. Antifa is creating a situation that gives the liberal-conservative ruling elite a new rationale to define itself as the keeper of the peace, and radical left dissent as “domestic terrorism.” Thus, any populist movement is again defeated in advance—in advance of building the popular support needed for effective revolutionary action. And the state of pre-emptive counter-revolution is further reinforced.
Because antifa misjudges the strategic situation, it misjudges the tactical situation in the theater of political demonstration.
In any demonstration of the radical right or left there are a small number of committed members of organizing groups, and many more sympathetic or curious people, semi-involved or hanging out on the sidelines. The task for any serious political movement in such events is not just to express their outrage, but to reach out to those semi-involved and lingering on the edge, and to a larger public, in ways that encourage their deeper participation. A radical movement that is trying to build mass popular support has to make itself a pole of attraction, to appear as a source of information, analysis, and support that people might listen to, and a vehicle for actions they might want to build as well as join. That’s what the alt-right has been trying to do. Fortunately for everyone, the more it’s heard and seen, its “Blood and Soil” racism will fail it.
So, refraining from attacking non-violent political expression is not about being polite to committed members of radical fascist groups. It’s about recognizing that there are many more people on the scene (which includes the media scene), who may have heard something from Trump or some other character that sounded alright (“Let’s not go to war with Russia. Let’s take care of American workers instead.”), but aren’t committed to anything at all, and want to know more. Because that’s the way most Americans—whose main source of political education is the soft- to hard-right ideological apparatus bounded by MSNBC and Fox, the New York Times and Breitbart—make up their minds. It’s about recognizing that the left has to reach a lot of those people on the periphery who, inevitably, have a lot of half-assed ideas in their heads that they haven’t thought through, and it’s about the left being confident that its message of peace, social justice, and class solidarity will succeed, if it can be effectively delivered.
Using these events as targeting exercises, where flying squads of the most righteously militant seek out and bash anyone wearing a MAGA hat is guaranteed to repulse almost everyone who is not sufficiently woke to have scoped out and rejected all forms of retrograde thought in advance. Ganging up on fellow citizens walks, talks, and quacks like bullying.
Is attacking demonstrators, and people who are just hanging around and “don’t have to be a Nazi!” to be pummeled, an effective tactic for building new alliances and deepening class solidarity, or is it an exercise in demonstrating the righteousness and bravado of a small cohort of the like-minded, in a way that’s guaranteed to put off a lot of potential allies? Take a look at this five-second clip from Shane Bauer:
Antifa beat down apparent alt-righter. pic.twitter.com/WVdDJqLKmA— Shane Bauer (@shane_bauer) August 27, 2017
Who’s doing a better job of attracting support for a working-class, socialist movement: the woman in the red shirt or the people beating the guy on the ground? How effective is the beatdown-the-Nazis tactic for bringing potential allies into a politically-effective movement? Ask this guy, who travelled to Boston to protest the white nationalists, and got sucker-punched because he was profiled by some antifa as a Nazi:
"He is on our side!"— Splinter (@splinter_news) August 22, 2017
This anti-white nationalist protester was punched in the face after being mistaken for a neo-Nazi in Boston: pic.twitter.com/Hi3U02vjBc
“I’m not exactly sure what I’m here for now” is not where effective movement-building tactics would have put this guy.
In both of these cases, I’m with the women who oppose the antifa tactics. And they do oppose them, as antifa proponents must recognize. In the first video, the woman physically blocks the antifa Nazi-beaters, and helps the guy being beaten. Can antifa accept that? Is she herself a Trump supporter? (Yes, Virginia, there are African-American and other non-white Trump voters, heads filled with half-assed ideas.3) Does it make any difference? Doesn’t she qualify for a beating, too? Why not? If you’re complicit with fascists because you’re not down with beating and “no-platforming” them, you’re certainly complicit if you physically intervene to stop the beating.
Beating up fascists can only be a tactic, not a strategy or a purpose. Antifa is tactics driving strategy. In the kindest conception, it’s tactics trying to spontaneously ignite a strategy. Been there, done that (not): The Weatherman, of whom I knew a few, had a similar idea—that street-fighting would attract working-class support. And they at least fought the cops, not fellow citizens. They didn’t go around beating on the pro-war, Nixonite union members who could be found heckling antiwar demonstrations.
But when you put the tactical cart before the strategic horse, none of it works. In revolutionary politics, tactics are driven by strategy, which is driven by a purpose—which for socialists is the overthrow of the capitalist state by a mass democratic movement that seizes control of the capital wealth of society. For that, you need a lot of people who know exactly what they’re here for at all times. Good tactics, whether passive or aggressive, are the ones that help with that.
Antifa groups themselves understand this, and make exactly the same kinds of political effectiveness calculations for exactly the same reasons that they deride their critics for insisting on.
Aren’t there a whole lot of nasty actors antifa is not beating and no-platforming? Will antifa show up with their righteous bodies and fists to prevent the next Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton speech at one of the higher academies of the empire, and beat up on the people attending? They are just two of the well-dressed people who are responsible—via indisputable direct action and not some post-modern speech-equivalent—for more violence to people, and non-white, non-American people in particular, than all the Pepe Froggers put together. In fact, speaking of fascism, they are two of the people most responsible for putting for putting actual, Hitler-loving Nazis in power in a European government for the first time since WWII. What’s the anitfa position on that? Why shouldn’t anti-fascists beat up on anyone wearing an “I’m With Her” shirt?
Hateful speech is actual violence? Advocacy of racist, supremacist, and explicitly or implicitly genocidal policies or principles is actual genocidal violence? Can we expect to see antifa brigades coming out punching at every Zionist rally or speech? Aren’t Zionists ethno-religious supremacists—“no less supremacist, no less racist” than American white nationalists, let alone run-of-the mill Trump voters? Don’t they materially and politically support actual rather than speech-equivalent violence, ethnic cleansing, and apartheid? In fact, don’t white nationalists call themselves, quite accurately, “White Zionists.”4
In either of these cases, and many others predicated on "We're capitalists [and imperialists, and Zionists], and that's just the way it is," if antifa isn’t showing up to punch people out, why not?
Antifa activists who would say, as I bet most would, "No, that's not necessary or desirable,” are making a political judgement as to what's most likely to be effective for building a popular movement in the American context—where, they recognize, there are a lot of non-evil people and potential allies who hang out at Democratic Party and pro-Israel events with a lot of half-assed ideas in their heads. And that’s the same kind of political judgement that underlies my and others’ criticism of antifa’s recent actions and proposed trajectory.
Why, specifically, does antifa make the political judgement to demur from kicking ass at some events where “violence-equivalent” political speech is voiced, rather than at others? Who gets the sticks and stones, and whose words can never hurt? Who has authority, on the basis of what political principle, to make such distinctions and decisions?
Or is it not a political judgment at all, but rather a matter of implicit sympathetic identification with some kinds of people rather than others. Is it, for example, because antifa can perceive liberal Zionists with half-assed, pernicious, self-protective identity notions in their heads as potential allies, in ways that they cannot perceive working-class people with half-assed, pernicious, self-protective identity notions? Whose minds are going to be harder to change?
And who is and isn’t seeing these questions?
Finally, I think, one of the major things that remains unseen in the whole antifa strategy is its implicit disregard of a politics of class solidarity in favor of a politics of solidarity based on like-mindedness. Not a crime, but an error.
I think most leftists can understand that our crucial task is to build popular support, which we lack, for a mass movement based on class solidarity. But here’s a radical notion that American leftists often forget: That movement has to be built with the working-class we have, not the one we wish for. Which means the axis of solidarity around which it’s built has to be material interest, not like-mindedness.
For socialists, solidarity is not a matter of prior agreement. You don’t have to agree with me for me to defend your interests.
This is bedrock socialism, historical materialist as opposed to idealist politics, communism 101: to demonstrate your support of people whose material interests place them in the working class, no matter what ideas they have in their heads (or what kind of hat they wear on them).
We’re not in advanced stage of struggle for and with those who already agree with us, but in an early stage of struggle for and we hope with those who are always, unjustly, being crushed by the wealth they create—whether they agree with us at the moment or not. Agreement doesn’t precede solidarity; it results from it.
You get popular support by defending and fighting for the people’s material interests, not by looking for people who have the same ideas as you, and attacking those who don’t.
It all proceeds from there, or it doesn’t proceed at all. There’s no running this film backwards.
Why? Because most people in a capitalist society with a capitalist educational and media and cultural apparatus are going to have a lot of fucked-up ideas in their heads. Shark Tank, Bling-Bling, and all. Everybody in capitalist society has been “taught wrong on purpose.”
It’s not that the stupid ideas don’t matter, and it’s not that those who are staunchly committed reactionaries can’t be targeted differently than those going along casually. It’s certainly not that reactionary and socially-destructive actions motivated by stupid ideas shouldn’t be firmly opposed with necessary force. It’s that 1) Making no distinction between casual followers and staunch leaders on the right both takes for granted and encourages the solidarity between the two—precisely what we should be working to challenge and disrupt, and 2) demonstrating solidarity based on material interest is the way you get people to listen to you and start maybe changing their ideas—whatever fucked-up ideas they’ve been deliberately taught.
Riddle me this: For revolutionary socialists, if there are a lot of people attracted to right-wing ideas—and there are, especially right-wing socio-economic ideas—whose fault is that? Is our job to punish them for it?
A right-wing populist movement (if there is one) won’t be defeated by sucker-punching; It will only be defeated by creating a left-wing populist movement that draws the majority of people to it. Our job, it seems to me, is to figure out how to build that.
It’s not very difficult to imagine a better way than antifa. How about, instead of a punch-fest, while the alt-right is marching around a Confederate statue for “Blood and Soil,” the left is converging on the municipal/state/federal government offices—with whatever militance it can muster—demanding jobs, pensions, and healthcare. Who wins that fight? Politically? TKO, at least.
Consider the historic and contemporary civil-rights movements, the fights for racial equality and justice that continue against the New Jim Crow of racialized urban policing and mass incarceration: Are these based on the premise that all, or even most, African-Americans carry around only righteously progressive ideas in their heads? That we should start fights with those who don’t, to punish them for their violence-equivalent wrong thinking? (Which is exactly what antifa did in April in Berkeley, by the way, where there were African-American Trump supporters.)
No leftist, let alone a socialist-communist leftist, would think anything so ridiculous. Yet somehow, a working-class guy or gal, white or black, with a MAGA hat is a target to punch, never a potential comrade to address. Wrong hat on, wrong ideas in, head. Must punch.
Well, wearing a MAGA hat should not disqualify one from being addressed as a potential comrade any more than should wearing a Nation of Islam hat. I think Louis Farrakhan’s Nation of Islam is based on a reactionary and bizarre religious theory of the world and human nature. So? What’s the basis of solidarity with black people? What’s the basis of solidarity with working-class people of all races?
Aretha spelled it out.
No one in the working class should be beaten just for expressing half-assed ideas.
Call me what you will for thinking that. Names will never hurt me.
A version of this essay was published on Countepunch.
2 Melinda Henneberger and Dahlia Lithwick , German Lopez, What the “alt-left” was actually doing in Charlottesville., The case against antifa - Vox, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oBNU7BhJBVM , The Ugly Side of Antifa - Leighton Woodhouse
3 Matt Labash, A Beating in Berkeley Trump got 28% of the Latino, 27% of the Asian American, and 8% of the Black votes, CNN Exit Polls 2016.