Nov 29, 2017
13 Min read time
Violence is only a small part of antifa. But it is an important tool.
I disagree with Etzioni about the ethical and political legitimacy of antifa. Yet, before getting into the nature of my disagreement, it is important to point out that we actually agree about most of the key underlying questions concerning the use of force in anti-fascist politics. Etzioni rightly argues that “all means of resisting” would be justified against a fascistic regime. He astutely notes that “counterviolence would be morally appropriate” against fascist mass movements that terrorize the marginal. He even concedes that it is legitimate for antifa to protect demonstrators from fascists when the police are absent, as they were in Charlottesville.
In fact, if we were to expand our view of militant anti-fascism beyond Etzioni’s narrow focus on violence to include the overwhelming majority of antifa methods, which do not entail physical confrontation (research, popular education, doxing, coalition building, cultural work, singing protests, boycotts, sowing discord through infiltration, pressuring venue owners to cancel fascist events or web servers to kick off Nazi accounts, etc.), we would undoubtedly encounter far more to agree about. It is unfortunate, however, that Etzioni echoes the media in reducing a complex politics born of decades of transnational struggle to a small fraction of its most infrequent activities.
The tragic irony of militant anti-fascism is that when it is successful, fascist organizing is stopped from growing powerful enough for most people to even care.
Nevertheless, it is worth debating the legitimacy of the tip of the anti-fascist iceberg that has so thoroughly vexed Etzioni: preemptive self-defense. This paradoxical concept seems a contradiction for those who believe that an individual or community must be suffering the blows of their aggressor immediately prior to, or during, any invocation of the right to self-defense. Despite the constantly growing trail of bodies left by Nazi and white supremacist politics, Etzioni and others essentially argue that fascists should be given the benefit of the doubt that their organizing may not result in any bodily harm to anyone if allowed to flourish.
In contrast, anti-fascists do not ask if white power organizing will harm someone, but when. After the past century of fascist brutality and five centuries of white supremacist slavery and genocide, anti-fascists refuse to offer the benefit of the doubt to any white power group using the slogan, “Hitler was right.” They take fascist ideologues at their word when they threaten to murder immigrants. The anti-fascist conception of self-defense amounts to an argument for the minimization of harm to marginalized communities. The best way to accomplish this, anti-fascists argue, is to stop white supremacists from taking even the first step toward building power rather than waiting for them to show up at someone’s house with baseball bats. Usually this goal is accomplished through the wide variety of nonviolent methods described above, actions which tend to fly beneath the public radar. But when such tactics fail, as a last resort anti-fascists are willing to physically shut down a Klan rally—even one that is “law-abiding.”
Etzioni supports such confrontation, but only when a violent fascist movement is on the ascent or has seized power. But if the ultimate goal is “never again,” then why allow for the possible growth of a mass genocidal movement based on the hope that we will be able to stop it once it has already started to flex its muscles? By the time that such a belated resistance would emerge, many would have paid the ultimate price for this passivity. The Jewish relatives that Etzioni and I both lost in the Holocaust were among those who suffered for the failure of interwar Europe to treat Nazism with the utmost seriousness from the outset.
If we agree, as Etzioni and I do, that there came a point in the interwar period when militant resistance to Nazism was legitimate, then it is incumbent upon all of us to determine how menacing fascist groups have to become before it is again justifiable today. For Etzioni, the moral threshold is constituted by the transition from speech to violence. Since the actions of the alt-right “amount to little more than very offensive speech,” Etzioni argues, fascism has not grown sufficiently perilous to merit an anti-fascist response. If only that were true.
If the ultimate goal is 'never again,' then why allow for the possible growth of a mass genocidal movement based on the hope that we will be able to stop it?
The Southern Poverty Law Center tabulated 1,372 “bias incidents” over the three months following Trump’s victory. These included death threats sent to immigrants as well as bomb threats, arson, and attacks on mosques, synagogues, and LGBTQ centers. Though the FBI reported 6,121 “hate crimes” in 2016, government reports show that the true figure could be as high as 250,000. Even if we put aside Dylann Roof’s white supremacist mass murder in 2015 and other earlier examples to focus solely on 2017, we can turn to the shooting of an anti-fascist protesting Milo Yiannopoulos’s visit to University of Washington by a far right counter-protester; the white supremacist murder of a homeless black man in New York in March; Jeremy Christian’s deadly knife attack in Portland; the May murder of a black student in Maryland by a member of a Facebook group called “Alt-Reich”; and the vehicular homicide of Heather Heyer in Charlottesville in August. When fascists assemble, violence follows. When Richard Spencer spoke at the University of Florida in October, neo-Nazis opened fire on a group of counter-protesters. An interracial couple was assaulted shortly after a White Lives Matter rally in Tennessee the same month. These and other similar incidents amount to far more than “very offensive speech.” How large does a white power movement have to become, and how many people does it have to kill, before we organize to shut it down? There is no non-arbitrary point of demarcation on this slippery slope between our current bloody state of affairs and the kind of violent mass movement that Etzioni would be comfortable militantly opposing. We need to shut it down now.
Etzioni argues that this interpretation rests on a false equivalence between our present moment and “Germany circa 1936,” but anti-fascists do not base their strategies on such one-dimensional analogies. The anti-fascist argument for shutting down fascist organizing before it grows hinges on two premises: first, that even in small doses, fascist and white supremacist politics can be deadly (see above examples); and second, that the future is unwritten. Anti-fascists oppose fascists not because they necessarily think they are in a Weimar situation, but in order to prevent the development of a Weimar situation. It is not a politics of civil war, but rather a politics to prevent the threat from growing large enough to spark such a conflagration.
In fact it is not the anti-fascists who are “misreading history,” but Etzioni. His essay overlooks the history of global post-war militant anti-fascists, who had quite a few successes in organizing to resist and shut down nascent fascist movements. Etzioni does not mention the efforts of the Anti-Nazi League to counter the National Front in Britain in the late 1970s on the heels of the anti-fascist victory at the Battle of Lewisham, or successful campaigns in the 1990s and early 2000s to shut down annual fascist marches in Dresden, Roskilde, and Salem. What about the self-defense of autonomous anti-fascists (some of whom were Turkish migrants) who organized against a neo-Nazi resurgence in Germany in the late 1980s and early 1990s? Or the successful campaign carried out by Anti-Fascist Action in Norway to crush fascism in the 1990s? Far more representative, however, are the many subterranean examples of neo-Nazi bloggers getting doxed, white power groups disbanding after anti-fascists infiltrate their ranks, and small neo-Nazi skinhead crews waving the white flag after succumbing to constant harassment from their antifa adversaries. These latter examples may sound trivial, but therein lies the tragic irony of militant anti-fascism: when successful, militant anti-fascists stop fascist organizing from growing powerful enough for most people to care when it is shut down.
It is essential for all who oppose white supremacy to search for ways to coexist in the struggle and stand in solidarity with each other.
Reasonable scholars may draw different conclusions from this history, as from all history, but the widespread failure of commentators to actually engage with any historical example outside of interwar Germany is inexcusable. Rather than engage with the history of the militant anti-fascist tradition, Etzioni addresses the meta-historical question of “violence” by endorsing the conclusions drawn by Erica Chenoweth (and Maria Stephen) that, over the past century, “nonviolent” movements have “succeeded” more frequently than “violent” movements. I put these terms in quotes because such one-dimensional, trans-historical definitions of “violence” and political “success” would not hold up in any graduate history seminar. Yet, even if taken at face value, Chenoweth and Stephen define “nonviolent” movements as those with a “primacy of nonviolent resistance” and assess “violence” in terms of armed insurgency, not breaking windows. Therefore, since militant anti-fascism is predominantly nonviolent, it would qualify as a “nonviolent movement” under this rubric. Indeed even the “violence” it occasionally carries out has nothing to do with the politics of guerrilla struggle that the study focuses on.
But this conversation points to a more profound argument about popular politics. Etzioni argues that “violent protest alienates the general public and depresses support for the protesters’ political views and policies.” Instead, he argues that “the only way to curb” Trump is to focus on the 2018 elections and do nothing that “could alienate even a small segment of the swing vote.” Etzioni and Chenoweth espouse an interpretation of popular politics that would have marginalized communities exclusively cater their forms of resistance to the taste of the majority.
But would that recipe have been sufficient for the Jews of the East End of London who rallied with more than 100,000 anti-fascists to block a planned march through their neighborhood by the anti-Semitic British Union of Fascists at the famed Battle of Cable Street of 1936? If the British press was any indicator, then the majority of British society disapproved of this militant action and perhaps sympathized with the complaints of the fascist leader Oswald Mosley that the counter-protesters had infringed upon fascist “free speech.” If the Jews of the East End of London had followed the Etzioni model of resistance, then they would have let the fascists intimidate their community while waiting for the next election. If you are sympathetic to the notion that this would have been insufficient, then you might be on the way to understanding anti-fascist politics.
Or take an example that played out in the late 1940s while Etzioni was agitating for a settler colonial state in Palestine: that of the 43 Group. This organization of British Jewish veterans of World War II came home to find that the Jewish community of London was under attack from a renewed (though still small) fascist movement. Rather than just hoping that their MPs would sympathize with their plight, the 43 Group commando units set about physically shutting down fascist meetings as synagogues were being torched and Jews attacked. In 1950 the group voluntarily disbanded, considering its mission accomplished. The members succeeded (to the degree that such absolute valuations ever make sense), and they did so without ever getting 51 percent of British society to agree with them.
If the Jews in the East End of London had followed the Etzioni model of resistance, they would have let the fascists intimidate their community while waiting for the next election.
In the United States, a 1961 Gallup poll found that only 22 percent of Americans approved of the Freedom Riders and only 28 percent thought that lunch counter sit-ins helped the cause of civil rights. If you had polled the population about the best way to start an anti–Wall Street movement in early 2011, nearly no one, myself included, would have approved of kicking it off by sleeping on an innocuous slab of concrete just up Broadway.
This is not to dismiss the importance of popular politics in the least. Even militant anti-fascism relies on popular revulsion at fascism and requires popular resistance when large far-right formations emerge. Yet the aforementioned examples point toward a more nuanced interpretation of the relation between the “public” and the resistance of the marginal.
First, there is no single public. There are multiple, overlapping, interrelated publics. When calibrating forms of resistance, their opinions do not all matter equally. Anti-fascists argue for the prioritization of the perspectives and experiences of those who are under attack, even if that yields results with which the majority disagrees. To do otherwise is all too often to allow those who are under attack to be assaulted and humiliated in silence because the majority, whose view is restricted to the electoral “big picture,” frequently has no investment in their well-being.
Second, resistance is not necessarily an election. A majority does not have to approve for a campaign or action to be successful. Anti-fascists have made an increased effort over recent months to explicate their perspectives, but they will continue to disrupt burgeoning fascist organizations and shut down white power groups even if such actions earn them biting critiques in the Atlantic. Anti-fascists would rather be unpopular while fascists are fearful of mobilizing than be beloved while white power politics are being promoted out in the open.
History shows that popular opinions change. What was disruptive yesterday is hallowed today (though always in a sanitized format). Ultimately, however, no amount of debate will bring all of us to consensus on such matters. That is why it is essential for all who oppose white supremacy to search for ways to coexist in the struggle and stand in solidarity with each other. The history of resistance shows that as long as there are disagreements in social movements, attempts will be made to divide “good protesters” from “bad protesters” no matter what the content of the difference may be.
That is why it is especially disheartening when Etzioni critiques Inauguration Day protesters without mentioning that these J20 arrestees (whose trials have just begun) are facing up to seventy-five years in prison for attending a protest. It is legitimate to critique tactics of property destruction, but doing so without standing up to the Trump administration’s efforts to criminalize dissent reveals a glaring lack of solidarity and a failure to see the big picture.
You do not have to be an anarchist to see the rationale and importance of what anti-fascists do.
Etzioni also misreads the foundation of antifa politics. He argues that if anti-fascists want to “fight for vulnerable segments of U.S. society. . . then they should . . . help people register to vote.” Yet, fascist violence occurs with Democrats in office. Structural racism is inherent in the criminal justice system, and those who are under attack cannot wait for the next election.
Such arguments also exemplify the tendency of commentators to assess anti-fascists based on centrist values and goals. Most antifa in the United States are anarchists who reject electoral politics as a vehicle for social transformation and have no allegiance to the Democratic Party. Ironically, they are among the few who advocate for the abolition of the vast majority of authoritarian violence that exists below the surface of the public conversation: the violence of the police, the prisons, the military, the borders, etc.
Militant anti-fascism is a challenge to the sovereignty of the state, not a defense of liberal democracy. But you do not have to be an anarchist to see the rationale and importance of what anti-fascists do. You only need to see the seriousness of the current threat and prioritize the perspectives of those who are most vulnerable.
While we have you...
...we need your help. You might have noticed the absence of paywalls at Boston Review. We are committed to staying free for all our readers. Now we are going one step further to become completely ad-free. This means you will always be able to read us without roadblocks or barriers to entry. It also means that we count on you, our readers, for support. If you like what you read here, help us keep it free for everyone by making a donation. No amount is too small. You will be helping us cultivate a public sphere that honors pluralism of thought for a diverse and discerning public.
November 29, 2017
13 Min read time