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‘Violent flank effects’ and the strategic naiveté of Antifa

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Published in collaboration with the Peace Science Digest, which summarizes and reflects on current academic research in the field of peace and conflict studies.

We’ve all heard the argument before: However “nice” the use of nonviolence may be, in the real world violence is necessary — and ultimately more effective, so the thinking goes — for challenging a brutal regime, fighting injustice or defending against an armed opponent. But what are the actual effects of adding violence to a movement’s repertoire of resistance strategies?

Previous scholarship has been inconclusive on this question of so-called “radical flank effects,” as studies tend to focus on individual cases and also reflect collective confusion over what is meant by “radical.” Does it, for instance, refer to the means used or the ends sought?

Focusing, therefore, on violent — as opposed to “radical” — flanks, researchers Erica Chenoweth and Kurt Schock sought to bring clarity and systematic analysis to bear on this question of positive versus negative violent flank effects. In a 2015 article for the journal Mobilization, they examined all nonviolent campaigns from  1900-2006 with radical (i.e. “maximalist”) goals — such as the “removal of an incumbent national government, self-determination, secession, or the expulsion of foreign occupation” — to see how the presence or absence of armed resistance affected the success of these nonviolent campaigns. Their findings offer compelling evidence that violence is not generally a helpful addition to nonviolent resistance movements.

How did they arrive at this conclusion? Using both quantitative and qualitative research methods, the authors begin by generating three hypotheses. First, nonviolent campaigns with violent flanks are more likely to succeed than nonviolent campaigns without violent flanks. Second, nonviolent campaigns without violent flanks are more likely to succeed than nonviolent campaigns with violent flanks. And third, violent flanks have no impact on the success rates of nonviolent campaigns.

To test these hypotheses, they search for any significant statistical relationships that might exist between the presence of violent flanks and the success or failure of nonviolent campaigns. They find none, thus providing no support for either the first or second hypothesis. As the authors note, this could mean either that the presence of violent flanks has no discernible effect on outcomes or that it has mixed positive and negative effects that cancel each other out when taken together. When they compare the effects of violent flanks that emerge from inside a nonviolent movement to those of violent flanks that develop parallel to a nonviolent movement, they find that the former are associated with failure, suggesting that negative violent flank effects are more pronounced when a nonviolent campaign cannot distance itself from its armed counterpart. Moreover, they find that mass participation is the strongest determinant of nonviolent campaign success and that the presence of violent flanks has a negative effect on participation levels, suggesting that violent flanks may indirectly decrease the likelihood of success.

To flesh out how violent flanks operate within individual cases, Chenoweth and Schock examine four cases where violent flanks were present: Burma in 1988, the Philippines from 1983-1986, South Africa from 1952-1961 and South Africa from 1983-1994. Two campaigns were successful (the Philippines and South Africa from 1983-1994) and two were not (Burma and South Africa from 1952-1961). Meanwhile, two had violent flanks outside of the nonviolent movement (Burma and the Philippines) and two had violent flanks associated with the nonviolent movement (the two South Africa cases).

After examining the histories of these nonviolent campaigns — and the ways they interacted with armed resistance — the authors find mixed results. Violent flanks had negative effects in the two unsuccessful cases, no net impact in one of the successful cases (the Philippines) and a weak positive effect in the other (the later South African case). Overall there was greater evidence for negative violent flank effect mechanisms than for positive ones.

In the one case where a violent flank had a weak positive effect (South Africa from 1983-1994), Chenoweth and Schock argue that that effect was mostly symbolic — energizing activists around the revolutionary mystique of violent resistance — rather than instrumental to gaining power over the apartheid regime (something that was accomplished, instead, by the nonviolent resistance movement).

However, in the two cases where violent flanks had negative effects, these effects were seriously detrimental. The presence of an armed movement, according to the authors, diminished “chances of success for otherwise nonviolent campaigns by legitimating repression, demobilizing participants, shifting to violent strategies where the state [wa]s superior, and discrediting regime opponents.”

Notably, the armed movements were consistently shown not to protect nonviolent activists but rather to put them at greater risk, as authorities used the presence of armed actors to justify widespread repression against all resistance movements, violent and nonviolent alike.

Chenoweth and Schock find evidence in the case studies, then, that violent flanks do actually influence the outcomes of nonviolent campaigns, despite the earlier quantitative findings suggesting otherwise. Negative and positive effects simply appear to cancel each other out when taken together over a large number of cases, with negative violent flank effects being somewhat more prominent than positive ones. The authors argue, therefore, that “on average, maximalist nonviolent campaigns often succeed despite violent flanks — rarely because of them.”

Contemporary relevance

Despite recent scholarship demonstrating the greater effectiveness of nonviolent resistance (see Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan’s 2011 book, “How Civil Resistance Works”), assumptions about the effectiveness of violence — along with its supposedly radical and/or revolutionary nature — stubbornly persist. When faced with a brutal or blatantly unjust opponent, many people are inclined to believe that only violence will bring about needed change or be able to protect and defend one’s community or fellow activists. We have seen this recent thinking everywhere from Syria to Venezuela, but for those of us in the United States struggling against the Trump administration and the white supremacist and neo-Nazi forces it has unleashed, we need look no further than the presence of Antifa (anti-fascist groups who do not rule out engaging in violent confrontations) in our own protests to see this same logic at work — as well as its counterproductive effects. Such groups see themselves as a necessary counterpart to white supremacist or neo-Nazi groups who come armed to demonstrations, ready to engage in street battles with left-wing activists.

Although this logic of needing to use violence to defend against violence is so widespread and deeply ingrained as to be almost intuitive, the problem is that such moves feed into and reinforce narratives on the right that inspire — and provide cover for — their own claims to self-defense. Just as the presence of a violent flank in an anti-regime nonviolent movement can provide necessary or further justification for government security forces to fire on protesters, so too can it create a similar dynamic among non-state groups, including neo-Nazis and white supremacists, mobilizing more recruits and ultimately increasing the vulnerability of anti-racist and anti-fascist activists and the marginalized and targeted communities whom they wish to defend.

Practical implications

In the wake of recent events in Charlottesville, outrage has rightly focused on the neo-Nazi and white supremacist groups who came armed and even killed one of the counter-protesters. Their goals of racial supremacy and purity, fueled by hate and fear and devoid of empathy, have no place in a country that values equality, pluralism and human dignity, and their ascendancy at the moment is nothing short of terrifying.

For the sake of effectively challenging these groups and their repulsive vision, however, those of us who consider ourselves part of the resistance must also engage in critical inward reflection, especially with regards to the strategic implications of the presence of Antifa affiliates who also came armed to Charlottesville, among otherwise nonviolent counter-protesters.

Although their work to expose and tirelessly organize against fascism is admirable and necessary, those who identify with Antifa and its full range of tactics appear to endorse at least two flawed assumptions. First, they assume that truly radical action to effectively challenge fascism must include violence — what is often termed “physical confrontation” — and that nonviolence equals “dialogue” or “normal politics,” which  implies acquiescence, submission or cooptation. Second, they assume that violence is also necessary to protect activists and targeted communities.

But, in fact, here is what we know from recent social scientific research: Nonviolent resistance is twice as likely to be effective as violent resistance when used for radical goals such as the removal of an authoritarian regime or national liberation, cases with no shortage of brutal, unreasonable opponents. Furthermore, nonviolent resistance strategy is all about analyzing and dismantling an opponent’s sources of power, including through direct action. Finally, as noted in Chenoweth and Schock’s research above, instead of protecting nonviolent activists, the presence of a violent flank frequently creates justification for further repression against them, making them more vulnerable to violence.

It is time, therefore, that we untether violence from its “radical” and “protective/defensive” associations. Not doing so — and hanging on, as Antifa does, to these tired old assertions that violence is a necessary response — is, quite simply, poor strategy. It gives white supremacists and neo-Nazis exactly what they want, reinforcing their “we’re embattled” narratives, thereby strengthening their movement. It muddies the waters by giving commentators on the right something to point to when they try to create ludicrous moral equivalencies between white supremacists/neo-Nazis and anti-fascist activists. And, in doing so, it does nothing to actually diminish the strength of white supremacism.

Furthermore, the continued presence of armed elements like Antifa has negative effects within the resistance. Speaking from personal experience, as the mother of a three-year-old, it makes me, for one, feel more vulnerable to violence and therefore less likely to show up to demonstrations with my daughter. I can only assume that many others — not just parents — feel and act similarly, resulting in diminished mass participation in the movement and thereby a decrease in its power and effectiveness.

For all these reasons, if Antifa activists care — as they no doubt do — about effectively challenging resurgent fascist, white supremacist forces, they must think more strategically, considering the short- and long-term effects of their actions. Although “punching a Nazi” may feel like effective action due to the immediate, physical consequences of violence — someone’s bloody nose, someone’s body on the ground — what actually matters for the strategic value of an action is how others respond to it afterwards.

Does it strengthen the opponent group — reinforcing its narratives, drawing more recruits and unifying them against a more easily vilified adversary — or weaken it? Does it strengthen one’s own side — drawing a broader array of activists of all ages and from all walks of life to the resistance movement, unified around a common vision — or weaken it? Does it bring uncommitted third parties to one’s side or alienate them? These — not the number of individuals punched or bludgeoned on the other side — should be the metrics of a strategic response to fascism.

The dangers of white supremacism and fascism are real, and the stakes for American democracy and values are high. It is precisely for these reasons that activists need to engage in discussions about the strategic merits and radical credentials of disciplined nonviolent resistance (both for movement effectiveness and for protection), together strategizing about those actions that will best diminish the power of the opponent to realize its white supremacist, fascist agenda. A few points, in particular, are worth raising.

First, despite common-sense associations of violent action with defense and protection, nonviolent discipline has a better chance of keeping activists safe than armed resistance does, even — counter-intuitively — in the face of a violent adversary. There is no guarantee of complete safety with either type of resistance, but armed resistance is much more likely to elicit further — not less — violence from the other side. Nonetheless, assumptions about arms and their role in defense or protection are so engrained that this is a tough point to get across. If presented with a scenario where a few unarmed activists in a completely nonviolent movement are killed by armed opponents versus one where a greater number of unarmed activists are killed by these opponents while joined by fellow armed activists fighting back, most of us are likely to characterize the unarmed activists in the first instance as “defenseless” and those in the second instance as being “defended,” despite the fact that they were, in fact, better protected in the first instance. These deeply engrained — and flawed — assumptions about the defensive or protective value of weapons must be brought to the surface and critically examined.

Second, there is a strategic logic to nonviolent resistance that most Antifa adherents seem to not know (as demonstrated through the claim on one Antifa website that “only popular self-defense, not simply debate, has succeeded in stopping fascism” or statements made by various Antifa activists in the New York Times suggesting that our choice in response to fascism takes binary form: use violence or “do nothing.”) Far from being synonymous with “debate” or inaction, nonviolent resistance involves the dismantling of an opponent’s sources of power through a range of methods, including various forms of disruption and direct action, and is twice as likely as violent resistance to succeed in achieving radical goals. In other words, the success of nonviolent resistance does not depend on the presence — and persuasion — of a “nice” adversary.

Contrary to mainstream belief, there is a historical record of successful nonviolent resistance against fascism in countries under Nazi control, including the Rosenstrasse demonstrations in Berlin where wives saved their Jewish husbands, Denmark’s rescue of most of its Jewish community, resistance to the Nazi policies of the Quisling government in Norway, and so on. Jacques Semelin’s 1993 book “Unarmed Against Hitler” is one resource that examines these and other cases throughout Europe.

Third, only by maintaining nonviolent discipline can the resistance dramatize and capitalize on the clear contrast between its activists and the white supremacists or neo-Nazis they confront. Stooping to the level of armed hooligans on the other side, engaging them on their own terms, weakens the anti-fascist cause by surrendering the high ground in media representations of demonstrations, providing cover for commentators who wish to draw a specious moral equivalency between the two sides, and alienating people who would otherwise ally themselves with an anti-fascist movement.

Finally, violence is less — not more — “radical” than nonviolence is, especially insofar as it is less effective in achieving radical goals and less likely to dismantle white supremacism and fascism than nonviolent resistance. Far from embodying a radical challenge to fascism, Antifa affiliates are doing exactly what neo-Nazis and white supremacists are hoping they will do — this is precisely the reaction that will energize the very fascists they are hoping to shut down, reinforcing their embattled narratives and strengthening their ranks. Only by disassociating one’s radical credentials from participation in violence will we ultimately move away from these knee-jerk responses to racist violence that do nothing to minimize the draw and strength of white supremacy — and instead move towards more strategic, effective action that actually has a chance of advancing the cause of a diverse, inclusive, just society.

To subscribe or download the full special issue on “nonviolent resistance,” which includes additional resources for each article, visit their website.