Admit it, whoever you are, you want to punch Nazis, and so do I. But emotional catharsis is not politics. Neither is retribution, no matter how well-justified. Of course, what we all want is to relegate fascism to the dustbin of history, but that is a political project.
The facts on the ground are these. The aggregation of Nazis, “Alt-Rights,” Confederacy lovers, worshippers of Odin, creepy dudes in khakis and white golf shirts, etc. are organized to fight in the streets. Even when outnumbered, an organized group can hold its own against a larger number of less well-organized people. How well-organized is the left, Antifa, or whomever?
I was not in Charlottesville. From my vantage point, the Rightists had rehearsed and were coordinated. The Black Bloc/anarchists/Black Lives Matter contingents did not appear to be so. As I said, I wasn’t on the ground, but that’s the way it looked. How did Deandre Harris get surrounded by five thugs in that parking garage? There are tactics for self-defense, but I didn’t see any in operation. Corrections to this observation are welcome. My argument does not depend on it.
I’m not discounting the bravery or intentions of Antifa or BLM. They have the power to inflict damage on random fascists, but what we need most is the power to defend allies. I’m not talking about the homicide-by-car; there is no way that could have been prevented.
What I mean is, to the extent possible, the first rule is to devote available physical force to defending your own. My impression is the Black Blockists etc. may be evolving in this direction, which is all to the good. Here is a report from Slate that testifies to their usefulness in Charlottesville. On the other hand, the group in Berkeley assaulted random Trumpies and journalists. Their action was a disgrace and a huge gift to Trump. It’s easy to find evidence that the fascists are deliberating seeking to provoke
On the other hand, the Antifa group in Berkeley assaulted random Trumpies and journalists. Their action was a disgrace and a huge gift to Trump. It’s easy to find evidence that the fascists are deliberating seeking to provoke and film assaults on non-violent pretend-supporters of free speech. They have a better grasp of Gandhi than some lefties. Since they’re supposed to be anarchists, I assume local Antifa groups are each responsible for their own behavior. The sins of Berkeley need not be visited on the Antifas of, say, Charlottesville.
We need to game this out. Suppose our side was better organized. Used military formations, command and control, more weaponry. The other side could match it, with two inescapable advantages. First, they have more guns. If the left started winning more street fights, more of our people, as well as random bystanders, would get shot. Some have already been shot. Second, as battles got more intense, the police would tilt to the side of the Right. It always does. Does anyone think a merry, multi-cultural band of heavily-armed lefties would not provoke an overwhelming police response? Ask Bobby Seale.
Consider also the political optics, in the current trendy lingo. The onus for the death of an innocent demonstrator has settled onto the rightists. There is no ambiguity about the allegiance of the perpetrator. Moreover, rightists of varied stripes stood shoulder-to-shoulder with straight-up Nazis. The Nazis were the vanguard, the rest were at least fellow-travelers. That means they all get tarred with the same brush. Forget “Alt-Right” or “white nationalists” or “neo-“ anything. They’re a mob of Nazis.
We can still be grateful for the fact that in the U.S. today, this is a bad political place to be. Trump’s outrageous apologetics for a mob of Nazis is political poison. The only thing that lets a little air out of this balloon is the fact that he can take note of unprovoked assaults by armed anarchists. One value of the Vice report that by now everyone has seen is that it makes clear the Charlottesville punks in khakis and white polo shirts are chanting Nazi slogans (“Jews will not replace us” and “Blood and soil”). All the rest gave us the benefit of clearly identifying themselves with confederate or neo-nazi regalia.
As awful as a mob of Nazis can be, their constitutional right to assemble and speak is beyond question. (ACLU donations here. Really!) Leftists who attack those legal acts with force, even when they can prevail on the ground, will have the losing side of the political argument.
So we lose on the ground and we give up points in the political argument. Not good.
The solution, I submit, is twofold.
- We need to distinguish non-aggression from non-violence. I’m no pacifist. Violence can solve problems, no question. Of course I’d like to punch Nazis. I can’t say I would have the courage to fight thugs thirty years younger than my old and out-of-shape self. But fantasy aside, aggression will not solve this problem. This is a political project. Non-aggression – letting them march and demonstrate – is recommended not as a moral act, the hell with that, but as a tactical imperative. It wins the political argument. Winning the political argument puts pressure on the State to turn the police loose on the mob of Nazis. The radical line that attacking fascists is self-defense because their mere presence or existence is an attack might pass muster at proceedings of the Fourth International, but it does not impress your everyday American. It does not advance the political project.
Non-aggression need not imply non-violence. Self-defense by any means necessary is essential. The objective is to register a counter-presence to rightist gatherings but refrain from attacking it. Avoiding aggression does not imply accepting violent assault. For the sake of the political project, it is essential that any brawl be recognizable as the result of aggression from the other side. That’s why the automobile homicide is so uncomfortable for Trump; there is no ambiguity about the guilt of the perpetrator and the innocence of the victim.
- The principal vulnerability of the mob of Nazis is not on the ground, since as above, when we game it out, we still come up short. Their greatest vulnerability is to an unleashed State apparatus. Where is the impetus for that? It comes from two places.
One is the growing proliferation of social movements around all the issues that motivate The Resistance ™, Our Revolution, and all the other agitation. Their power is organization. It has already been demonstrated, as we can see in the utter lack of achievements by the Trump Administration.
The other is the included capability of that mobilization in the electoral arena, considering the many vulnerable Republican Members of Congress, going into 2018. A Democratic wave makes impeachment a practical possibility. In fact, the threat of a wave before the fact does as well. Both increase pressure on the Department of Justice and on police departments to act.
The radical rejoinder to this argument, since this debate is as old as the hills, is that courageous assaults on Nazis will inspire the public to greater levels of support. We’ll have bigger and better mobs on our side. But as I suggested above, game it out. Does the erosion of norms of civil debate and everyday politics help us more than them? I don’t think so. Do we observe this strategy working in the past? I would say no.
Of course, it’s hard to argue with self-defense, by any means necessary. But self-defense is only politically viable when it is clear that the other side is acting outside the law as an aggressor. Chaos in the streets begets melees in which no such clarity is possible.
There is a need to act, but actions that satisfy are not necessarily those that move us forward.