Anti-Fascism and Violence

AT THE HEART of the anti-fascist ethos is a rejection of the classical liberal notion adopted from Voltaire that “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” After Auschwitz and Treblinka, anti-fascists committed themselves to fighting to the death to stomp on the right of Nazis to say anything.

As refreshing it is to see someone taking up his banner with such candor and aplomb as Mr. Mark Bray (find here the source for this quotation), I admit I remain somewhat perplexed by his position. Evidently, the rules of civil discourse, which ought regulate our interactions with almost all conceivable political positions, are somehow to be suspended in the face of one and only one: fascism. With the fascists (and evidently, there can be no legitimate disagreement as to who is or who is not a “fascist”; one knows one when one sees one, like a rock or a rainbow), we are entitled to adopt whatever strategies are necessary, to be certain that these fascists have “no option but to hide” (to borrow Mr. Bray’s happy phraseology). We are entitled to this remarkable exceptionalism, on account of the sins that the fascists have on their historical conscience.
      Can I hope, then, that Mr. Bray will extend the same lack of courtesy to contemporary communists as he does to contemporary “Nazis”? Just in case, I’ll ask it on his own terms: after the Cultural Revolution, the Red Terror, the Great Purge, and the Cambodian Genocide (must I go on?), will anti-fascists “commit themselves to fighting to the death to stomp on the right of communists to say anything”? And will Mr. Bray for one be willing to identify the new “communists” with such loose generosity as he does “fascists”—even though he himself, as a self-proclaimed anarchist, would surely fall under such a wide umbrella?
      I doubt it. But then I am forgetting, of course, that consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.
      So I limit myself instead to reasserting that stale old “classical liberal notion” which so ridiculously favors reason over violence, and which alas, just isn’t hip with today’s young, who prefer going about in masks with the “antifas,” dressing up in black, disrupting peaceful congregations, lighting fires in the streets, smashing windows, assaulting unarmed men, and like edifying activities to fill their idle time.
      The behavior of these anti-fascists seems somehow to ring a distant bell, but Mr. Bray is bravely untroubled by the parallel:

To those who argue that this would make us no better than Nazis, we must point out that our critique is not against violence, incivility, discrimination or disrupting speeches in the abstract, but against those who do so in the service of white supremacy, hetero-patriarchy, class oppression and genocide. The point here isn’t tactics, it’s politics.

Ah! Violence as a tactical question, not a political one! That is suave. I had been laboring under the sad impression that violence was one of the most fundamental of political questions. I see only now how great my error was: those with the right ideas can do whatever they damn well like.
      In any case, Mr. Bray can take heart: he is in growing good company these days. Say what you will against it, the new presidency has opened up such thrilling professional prospects to political agitators of all stripes. Ever since Trump’s election, and all around the country, the anti-fascists have been crawling up out of their burrows to get at all sorts of wholesome mischief, like setting other people’s property on fire, shutting down talks on freedom of speech by a self-described libertarians, and striking political opponents in the face while these are peacefully expounding their positions to hostile crowds.
      Indeed, one is liable to lose hours at a stretch, whilst daydreaming just how much more peaceful and orderly the country would be, if only we had more of them.
      I find here a rather unorthodox defense of the last-mentioned event from another antifa sympathizer, one Natasha Lennard:

And anyone enjoying the Nazi-bashing clip (and many are) should know that they’re watching anti-fascist bloc tactics par excellence—pure kinetic beauty.

It would be useless, of course, to object that Richard Spencer has denied being a Nazi—indeed, that he was denying it just moments before he was struck. It would be useless to insist on the fact that Milo Yiannopoulos, whose canceled Berkley speech is alluded to above, has described himself time and time again as a libertarian, which, last I knew anything of it, somehow someway differed from fascism. It would be useless, I say, because I can anticipate the response to such objections. “Of course!” the antifas would roar in antiphonal refrain: “The old fascist smokescreen! Who buys that? We know what they are!”
      And thus may we distill the anti-fascist “philosophy”: the anti-fascist bloc is entitled to bring summary violence against those who hold to fascist positions; and the same anti-fascist bloc is the final authority on who is and is not a fascist.
      I beg the anti-fascists to remind me, for my memory is short: on what criterion and by whose authority did the Nazis determine who belonged to the various groups that were massacred so pitilessly during Hitler’s reign of terror?
      I wish I could believe that these commentators, nay, these activists, simply do not realize that to incite violence on one side, is to invite retaliation from the other. I wish I could believe they do not realize that the “pure kinetic beauty” of a flying fist—if there truly be such a “beauty”—exists quite independently from any and all political positions, and can as easily come of the “fascists,” as the “anti-fascists.” Given the intellect that writers like Mr. Bray and Ms. Lennard evince in their writing, I can only assume they are well aware of these things. I can only assume they would be all too happy if their opponents responded in the same tone with which they themselves have commenced: for then the supporting choir of voices behind them would quickly treble.
      Aye—I can only assume as much; and I can only hope that those against whom the anti-fascists bring such temptation, will be firmer of principle than are their tempters. If the anti-fascists are right in their accusations, however, the civil tranquility of the coming years depends now decisively on the self-restraint and moral rectitude of fascists. A cheerful state of affairs, no doubt, which we owe precisely to—the anti-fascists.
      In case all of this proves a fickle guardian of our peace, let me bring a reminder and a warning before our flailing democracy, drawn from the same “classical” vein the antifascists abandon so carelessly. The reminder, the warning, is a simple one, and it is this: in any given dispute, Violence on the one hand, and Reason on the other, are the only non-partisan principles in all the world: they belong to whomever would take them up.
      But though neither stands against any single political party, they do stand eternally against each other.
      May the best souls on both sides ponder well what ground they would choose for the confrontations of the coming decades.


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  1. Joe Leonard - February 5, 2017 @ 7:01 am

    Interesting! The only answer is to retaliate as the water protectors are attempting, through nonviolence. So far they have been abused with rubber bullets, pepper spray, and water cannons in freezing temperatures. Do you believe nonviolence can prevail? Gandhi prevailed, I believe that nonviolence is the only possible avenue despite the carnage inflicted by the alt-right.

    • John Bruce Leonard - February 6, 2017 @ 10:28 am

      Many thanks for your comment!

      I do not believe nonviolence can always prevail, if this is meant to intend that nonviolence is a sure road in all cases to achieving one’s political aims. It seems to me that much depends on what one’s political aims are, to say nothing of the social context in which they find themselves. Gandhi prevailed against an empire that had already lost the will to rule: I doubt he should have succeeded, say, against the Romans of the first centuries of the Common Era.

      But taking your question in a more limited sense—as to whether nonviolence is a suitable strategy in the United States of America, in these troubled times—that question seems identical to me to the question of whether or not our democratic society can continue to be democratic. I see nothing compatible between violence and the democratic order; and I hold that the deeply disquieting moral oversight of those who, like the antifascists, propose violent solutions to grave political disputes, resides in their total abdication of the possibility of peaceful resolution of these same disputes. They have admitted, that is, that democratic societies work only up to a point; and moreover that they alone, in good vigilante style, will be the ones to determine precisely where that point falls.

      I agree with you: non-violent response in the face of non-violent disagreements seems to me not only the morally superior, but even the politically obligatory, strategy, for anyone who really believes in democracy.

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