In front of a standing-room-only crowd at the Howard Zinn Book Festival in San Francisco earlier this month, historian Mark Bray and I debated the value of using violence to quell the growth of neo-Nazis and white supremacists. Anti-racism trainer Molly McClure was the moderator.
We received a good deal of appreciation for the chance to hear, in the same space, two different perspectives, shared by mutually-respectful activists who were interested in shedding more light than heat.
Dealing with fascists is a very big subject for a short article, so I’ll use the frame that Mark and I used that night, which was to try to avoid global, abstract generalizations in favor of speaking to a few strategy issues that are of pressing concern right now. We mostly used historical examples as resources to help us think about what all of us face in the present. Mark’s views can be found in his 2017 book “Antifa.”
Fascism grows in polarized times
The growth of polarization makes it possible for haters to come out from the margins, form larger groups and make political trouble. Why is polarization increasing now, with the accompanying growth of fascist groups?
A trio of political scientists found that polarization is driven by economic inequality. The inequality is generated by the policies of the economic elite, the 1 percent who dominate our country. The more inequality, the more polarization and — therefore — the more trouble from neo-fascist formations.
Billionaire Warren Buffett let the cat out of the bag when he revealed to The New York Times in 2006 that the 1 percent has been waging, in his words, “class war.” As I see it, that’s been going on at least since the presidency of Ronald Reagan. Some young working-class white men are manipulated by the results of that class war — and our country’s racism — to respond by joining the Ku Klux Klan and other groups.
In other words, the cause of rising fascism is the economic elite and its wish to take more and more of the country’s wealth for itself. Economist Elise Gould tells us that “The gap between those at the top and those at the middle and bottom has continued to increase through much of the 2000s.”
Antifa focuses on fascists as our enemy, but that is mistaking the symptom for the cause. The fascists are mostly people on the margins who have no say about what’s hurting them and mistakenly believe their enemies are immigrants, blacks, liberals and Jews. I believe the real perpetrators are super-rich conservatives, libertarians, and Democrats who agree that neo-liberal economic policies are a good thing and that they can live with the “unfortunate” consequences — which not only hurt the rest of us (including members of the Ku Klux Klan), but also the planet and its ability to sustain us.
To reverse course and put our country on what the civil rights movement called “the Freedom Road,” we need to upset the dominance of the economic elite. That requires building mass movements that learn, as they grow, the necessity of nonviolent revolution. My new book “How We Win” describes how to move more quickly in that direction.
A model for success amidst Nazi threats
The growing economic inequality of the 1920s resulted in increased political polarization in Sweden and Norway — just as it did in the United States during the same decade. The extremes at both left and right grew, including the Nazis.
As with German Nazis and Italian Fascists of the same period, the right-wing extremists of Sweden and Norway wanted to use violence to dominate the politics of their day. It must have tempted the growing left movements of Nordic farmers and workers to preoccupy themselves with the Nazi threat. The Scandinavian left had even more to fear because the Nazi ideology contained an appeal to ancient Scandinavian myths and the “heroic Aryan blood” of the Vikings.
Instead, the Nordic left movements kept their focus on the real perpetrators of inequality and injustice. The left aimed at pushing the economic elite off their pedestals, and they succeeded despite the violence the elite used to protect their privilege. As I’ve described in my 2016 book “Viking Economics,” the Scandinavian left pulled off the closest thing yet to a democratic revolution that changed class power relations and installed an alternative economic model centering the worker instead of capital. And they did it with a brilliant multi-dimensional strategy that featured nonviolent struggle doing the heavy lifting.
In the meantime, the left in Germany and Italy got distracted by the right-wing extremists. Historian Laurie Marhoefer describes the violent leftist response to Nazi provocations in Germany. Battles between left and right inside taverns surged into the streets. The German middle classes became alarmed at the rising amount of violent chaos and went along with their economic elites’ decision to hand state power to Adolf Hitler.
A similar dynamic happened in Italy, where the rising violence between left and right led to the appointment of fascist Benito Mussolini to lead the government. After all, in a period of polarization and insecurity, “we need law and order,” right? Give the state, the elite reasoned, to the party promising law and order — big time!
I sometimes think the smartest thing the Swedish and Norwegian left did was to avoid getting baited by their Nazi antagonists into street-fighting and mounting chaos. Instead, they modeled self-discipline and used the disruptive, nonviolent power of noncooperation to force a power shift. They also projected a vision to show how the new economy would work for the common good, winning in the process more and more allies, including members of the fearful middle classes.
Since the United States faces increasing chaos — guaranteed by random violence and climate disaster, along with polarization — we should hold this successful model in our minds as we figure out what to do.
From reactivity to pro-activity
While touring the country the past couple years, I’ve seen an enormous amount of reactivity among progressives. Many closely follow media that dwell on bad news, trying to respond to a dozen issues at once, competing for political correctness, scattering their energy, and — no surprise — becoming depressed.
That’s the opposite of what works for making progressive change.
Antifa offers one more rationale for reactivity: Doing quick mobilizations against right-wing extremist groups that announce a plan to rally. Not only does that reactivity subtract energy needed to build winning campaigns that build movements, but it can also lead us into traps.
In November, activists in Philadelphia heard through social media that the Proud Boys were coming to hold a rally. About 40 right-wingers showed up and made speeches — a non-event, a failure, in no way worthy of mass media coverage.
However, hundreds of progressives showed up, transforming the non-event into political primetime for the right wing. The Philadelphia Inquirer, normally a daily newspaper reluctant to cover street demonstrations, published an enormous article containing six photographs (two in full color) and over 20 column inches of text. The bonus for the right-wingers was that the conflict did turn physical and at least one of them was hurt, fitting nicely into the playbook on the right that they are “poor victims” of the liberal elite and deserving of sympathy.
In effect, the progressives gave the right-wingers a victory. A newspaper reader could easily conclude that the extremist right must be consequential — otherwise they wouldn’t have received so much attention. And attention only adds more fuel to the fascists’ fire.
Economic polarization enrolls alienated working-class white men to the extremist right, where they are led by bullies who rise to the top of the gang. Even more than most of us, bullies want attention. And fascism, as a political ideology, only affirms that craving.
There is a way, however, to handle bullies, which most of us know: Refuse to give them what they want. What we need, I believe, is a left like that of the Swedes and Norwegians who knew how to refuse what the bullies in their countries wanted.
We can refuse to be baited and manipulated. We can refuse to play their game. After all, we have something better to do: organize campaigns for winnable goals that help build powerful mass movements, so that we can unite those movements behind a positive vision able to push the economic elite aside and open space for a new society.
Many of those attracted to fascist-led formations will see the error of their ways. After all, a nonviolent, democratic society is organized around the common good, satisfying the vast majority.
What about the deeply-convinced haters, unwilling to change? They will scatter to the margins, where they wait with the hope that conditions for their politics will once again become favorable. They serve as a barometer of how things are going, as we’ve seen in Scandinavia recently. Sweden, which has allowed economic inequality to grow more than the other Nordics, is also troubled by more growth in their neo-fascist minority. The Swedish majority is once again challenged, as is that of the United States. Will we confront the real problem of inequality?
My hope for the left, in both countries, is to focus on the fundamental problem, rather than the symptom.
The British climate movement’s ‘Big One’ brought out record numbers, but ran into a wall of silence. XR’s new strategy could turn this setback into a new lease on life.
Many are celebrating the recent convictions against the Proud Boys, but they will only strengthen the state’s ability to target the left.
A new book explores how Miss Major has persevered over six inspiring decades on the frontlines of the queer and trans liberation movement.
Wise words to guide us through these fractured times and help us remain centered and focused on fundamental changes.
Something I really appreciate about your books and columns, George, is your focus on places where big fascist movements sprung up in the 1930s, but were ultimately unsuccessful. It seems like most scholars focus primarily on Germany and Italy—understandable, and certainly crucial in many ways—but it seems to me if your primary goal is working out how to defeat contemporary fascist movements, you want to take a deep critical look at the places where historical fascist movements *lost*, not just the cases where they won.
I hadn’t realized you did a live debate with Mark Bray, and I’m very glad to hear that you did. Having heard and read many intelligent, sincere arguments on both sides of the nonviolence debate, I’ve been wishing for a long time for a dialogue between the two sides. It seems to me that both often raise compelling arguments, that the other side then proceeds to ignore, instead attacking the opposing side’s weaker arguments.
I read Bray’s “Antifa” a few months ago, and felt he did a better job than most at engaging with the strongest arguments of his nonviolence-advocating opponents. He brought up serious criticisms of Chenoweth and Stephan’s “Why Civil Resistance Works,” which I think all of us who believe in revolutionary nonviolence must engage with if we’re intellectually honest. However, even Bray fumbled when it came to engaging with his opponents’ strong arguments in a few crucial places – most flagrantly, when he trotted out the tired “Obviously, nonviolence could never have stopped the Nazi Holocaust” argument as though the mere assertion was proof enough.
Unfortunately, George, I feel this column is guilty of similar failures, and a touch of speciousness to boot. As a believer in revolutionary nonviolence whose closest friends and comrades are all skeptical if not actively hostile, I’m afraid this article will be no help to me whatsoever in trying to make a case to them.
First off, according to Bray’s interviews and in my own experience, most antifascists (I follow the lead of a fellow Quaker and pacifist antifascist in not abbreviating the word) share your analysis of the root causes dwelling with the political and economic elite, with working class fascism being only a symptom; they do not, as you claim, view fascist groups as the source of the problem. Most of them are engaged in a number of other political activities aimed towards social justice and liberation—it’s just that those activities tend to be less of a media draw than confrontations with fascists, violent or otherwise.
My understanding of the argument in favor of disrupting fascist gatherings and events is basically two-fold: one, that it helps prevent fascism getting a foothold, and two, that it’s a form of community self-defense against fascist violence.
Of the two, I find the second argument much more persuasive, so that’s the one I’ll focus on. Proponents of a more combative antifascism point to the violent attacks fascists provoke and enact in marginalized communities when they hold their rallies. Mark Bray makes the argument quite eloquently in “Antifa,” discussing the shutdown of Milo Yiannopolous’ speaking event at UC Berkeley last year:
“If shutting down Yiannopoulos or Coulter prevented a single undocumented or transgender student from facing harassment or worse, as happened when Yiannopolous spoke at UW-Milwaukee, then it was worth it. Period.”
As a privileged activist, I am acutely aware of the necessity to act in solidarity with people of color, Muslims, undocumented people, queer people—the people most oppressed by the machinations of the ruling class *and* most targeted for fascist violence. I’m also aware of the tendency for privileged activists such as myself to abandon more marginalized compatriots when continued solidarity becomes physically, emotionally, and/or ideologically challenging for us.
This is why I find the “communal defense” argument so persuasive. All very well for me to say, as a white activist, that we should focus on building movements for social change as a long term solution to defeating fascism—as I said before, I’m sure an overwhelming majority of antifascist activists would concur without hesitation. However, if I stipulated that this should be instead of showing up to defend targeted communities from fascist violence, I know I would be accused of failing to act in solidarity with the people who are in real danger of being attacked, assaulted, beaten up, and potentially even murdered. And at the moment, I don’t believe I could make a particularly good counterargument to that accusation. (I know white anarchists are often accused of replicating white supremacy because the consequences of their more aggressive tactics such as property destruction at demonstrations and the like mainly fall upon local people of color. However, aggressive tactics being counterproductive in one area does not on its own prove they’re counterproductive in all circumstances.)
Building movements for social change is, indeed, crucial—however, it’s also a process that will take many months, and more likely years. So that leaves us with the question of what to do about fascist violence against vulnerable communities in the meantime. This article appears to advocate the approach commonly derided by antifascist activists as “If you just ignore them, they’ll go away.” These activists argue that fascist rallies and events which go unattended are used for recruitment and to persecute marginalized communities. In this much, at least, the antifacist organizers’ analysis is in agreement with that of former white supremacist and co-founder of Life After Hate Christian Picciolini, who said in a recent interview that the two responses white supremacists most like are when you ignore them and when you attack them, because both can be spun to their advantage.
Any argument against confronting fascists which has any hope of gaining traction with those not already 100% convinced of your position must tackle the question of community defense. It should make a compelling case for nonviolent confrontations—one that can answer the obvious counter-argument “All right for that time, but sometimes they attack and you have no choice but to defend yourself (with violence).” Or it has to address the risk of fascist violence in marginalized communities and explain why they shouldn’t be confronted anyway. I don’t see either case made here.
So, then, what about community defense in the meantime? How would you advise activists facing the real and present threat of fascists coming into their community with intent to assault, beat up, possibly maim and kill?
Thanks for your clear and thoughtful (as usual) response to the column, Lincoln. I agree with you that the strongest argument for confronting antifascists — violently or nonviolently — is in the framework of community defense, including protection of those who are particularly targeted by fascists.
I’ll address that argument in my next article for WagingNonviolence, so stay tuned.
In the meantime, I’ll just note that while Mark Bray agrees in his book with your observation about your antifascist friends that they do put energy into change issues as well as wanting to deny fascists a platform, he promotes antifa as a political identity, a place to stand in a world of shifting issues and concerns. In this article I wanted to be critical of reactivity as a core identity — we already have too much reactivity in U.S. political life and not enough attention to vision, too much attention to oppression and not enough focus on liberation.
How do we do that while also minimizing the harm that fascists do? Coming soon.
Okay George, I’ll look forward to your next article, as I look forward to watching the video of your debate with Bray when you have a chance.
Most of my personal associates, while sympathetic to Antifa philosophy and tactics, are not active members of any Antifa groups, so my knowledge of those engaged in antifascist activism is mostly second- and third-hand. I’m not aware of “Antifa” being pushed as a positive political identity in the pro-Antifa media I consume, and I don’t remember getting that impression from Bray’s book – but it’s entirely possible that’s a facet I’ve failed to pick up on.
I certainly share your lack of faith in reactivity as a core political position, and your dismay at the extent to which reaction and defensiveness have taken over activism and activist approaches here in the US. One of the things I continue to appreciate in your column, books, and speaking engagements is the emphasis you place on the need for vision and the need for sweeping, positive goals; to put what we want to see central to our action and organizing, and work outward from there to oppose what we don’t want to see or want to stop seeing.
I anticipate reading your perspective on how to balance vision-based organizing with collective self defense. Thank you for your response, and Happy New Year to you and yours.
As always, at risk of moderator censorship, here justified if construed as failing to “keep comments constructive”, I will point out that contrary to the commenters uninformed aside, “antifa” is not an abbreviation, it is the proper name of a specfic “tendency” or faction and is only loosely related to the broader concept of “antifascist”. Arguably “antifa” itself often conducts itself in a fascist manner, as the right continually insists, and not without some basis in fact. But the main point is that it is not a mere abbreviation and to assert otherwise taints the commenter as at the least imprecise.
George Lakey begins well, explaining that “inequality is generated by the policies of the economic elite, the 1 percent who dominate our country.” He even acknowledges how a representative of this elite “Billionaire Warren Buffett let the cat out of the bag when he revealed to The New York Times in 2006 that the 1 percent has been waging, in his words, ‘class war.’”
But Lakey then betrays his own stunted appreciation of the nature of this class war by adding: “As I see it, that’s been going on at least since the presidency of Ronald Reagan.” Needless to say, the class war is as old as capitalism itself, so it is rather problematic for Lakey to say that the ruling-class had only launched this class war in recent decades!
In order to attempt to draw some lessons from history, Lakey takes his readers back to the early twentieth century, to a time when the class war was being waged with particular desperation by capitalist elites – especially given the recent success of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. He argues that the vital lesson to learn from Hitler’s rise to power should be that the working-class should not directly confront fascist violence with their own violence. As Lakey writes:
“[T]he left in Germany and Italy got distracted by the right-wing extremists. Historian Laurie Marhoefer describes the violent leftist response to Nazi provocations in Germany. Battles between left and right inside taverns surged into the streets. The German middle classes became alarmed at the rising amount of violent chaos and went along with their economic elites’ decision to hand state power to Adolf Hitler.”
Moreover it gets worse, as the article Lakey links to bolster this point – Laurie Marhoefer’s “As How should we protest neo-Nazis? Lessons from German history” – also mangles history by arguing that violent counter-demonstrations against the once marginal Nazi Party “helped the fascists enormously” such that: “In 1933, riding a wave of popular support, it seized power and set up a dictatorship.”
This is a gross distortion of history, intended to provide ideological support for a purely nonviolent approach to social change. This leads Marhoefer to conclude that the best way to oppose Nazi demonstrations is to effectively ignore them. She advises:
“Hold a counterevent that doesn’t involve physical proximity to the right extremists. The Southern Poverty Law Center has published a helpful guide. Among its recommendations: If the alt-right rallies, ‘organize a joyful protest’ well away from them. Ask people they have targeted to speak. But ‘as hard as it may be to resist yelling at alt-right speakers, do not confront them.’”
To be clear, Marhoefer is adamant: “This does not mean ignoring Nazis. It means standing up to them in a way that denies them a chance for bloodshed.” That is, standing up to them in a way that allows them to inflict bloodshed on those who are not at any nonviolent counterevents!
Lakey, for his part, is not one to settle for merely criticising socialists. Thus, in contrast to what he believes were mistakes of the left in Germany and Italy (and there were many that he ignores), Lakey raises what he refers to as the successful examples of nonviolent resistance to the rise of the Nazis, most particularly in Norway and Sweden. Lakey states they “pulled off the closest thing yet to a democratic revolution that changed class power relations and installed an alternative economic model centering the worker instead of capital.”
What Lakey glosses over is that the powerful socialist movements of the 1920s and ‘30s that defeated the far-right in Norway and Sweden actually did so by betraying the Marxist ideas that led to the success of the Bolshevik Revolution. That is, the Social Democratic leaders ditched the ongoing class war to come to a temporary rapprochement with their class enemies.
Likewise, while Lakey idealises the once radical socialist and trade union movement in Norway he neglects to problematise the fact that when they assumed power in 1935 they preferred to court favour with Stalin’s murderous regime than with his leading socialist critic, Leon Trotsky.
Lakey displays the same shortcomings when it comes to understanding what happened in Sweden. So, to quote another more critical Swedish historian, we might observe that during the 1920s and ’30s Sweden’s Social Democrats “gradually abandoned the divisive language of class and class struggle in favor of the language of ‘folk’ that served to create political bridges to both the rural peasantry and the urban middle classes.” (September 17, The Nation)
In this way the Swedish historian Lars Trägårdh continued, “it was possible in the 1930s for the Social Democrats to successfully harness the power of national feeling, to become democratic nationalists and fight off the challenge from domestic right-wing nationalists in the Nazi mold.” He thereby concludes:
“By abandoning the rhetoric of class struggle, they also placed themselves in a position to build ties with the Swedish industrial elite, finding legendary expression in the so-called Saltsjöbaden agreements of 1938 that set in place a corporatist order of peaceful and constructive relations between labor unions and big business, crucial to the construction of the welfare state.”
Despite its limitations, the services rendered by this welfare state are worth defending (and extending). But with Social Democratic parties across Europe (including in Sweden) having been content to act as willing overseers of the destruction of the idea of a welfare state, it is precisely these parties that should be held to account for preparing the ground for the current rise of the far-right.
Mandatory “keep comments constructive” sounds like code for “no criticism allowed”, a general attitude on the left which has driven me from it. I will never take this writer seriously after he now writes ” I believe the real perpetrators are super-rich conservatives, libertarians, and Democrats who agree that neo-liberal economic policies are a good thing…” basically attacking the center from the left and, like antifa, ruining the prospect for a progressive alternative. Frustrated with people like this writer, all I can do is prepare for the worst and hope that history works itself out without too much damage. Sorry, but your requirement of “constructive” while attacking centrist Democrats permanently alienates me despite your resume, and I have less hope after encountering your writing.
Came across this during my regular perusal of resilience.org. Thank you for a very good column. Coming from the land of Gandhi, this resonated well.
Just wanted to point out something that may not be significant but still worthwhile to be aware of in this era of intolerant political correctness (which I am opposed to of course). The image at the top of the column depicts a swastika with a dot signifying the head of a human. Please note that the swastika is a symbol that has been around for a few thousand years and the word denotes peaceful existence. That it has been misused is a tragedy. The image shown here is a left facing swastika, a sacred symbol in Buddhism. The Nazis used a right facing swastika rotated 45 degrees with no dots. A right facing upright swastika with four dots is a holy symbol in Hinduism. My suggestion would be to use a mirror image of the picture at the top so as to provide a more accurate symbolism and to avoid ruffling any over-sensitive feathers 🙂
One of the reasons reducing polarization matters is that most of the people with police and military training, and who are knowledgeable about weapons, and who are outdoorsy types, and all-terrain vehicle enthusiasts …etc, are on the political right. If there were left-vs-right political violence at the level of killing, it probably go well for us progressives.
Typo: it would not go well for us progressives, probably
You’re 100% correct about that Proud Boys rally. 2 of us got a photo in the Inquirer; we were dressed as clowns, walked behind the police and into the Boys’ area with 2 of them and a sign, “Proud Boys are clowns”. It was hilarious until the police ran us out. Also hilarious was when the Boys wanted to leave, but someone was telling their potential Uber drivers not to take them because they were racist, so they were stuck for a while, outnumbered with an unfriendly crowd. However, it didn’t advance the cause. All that negative energy and in-fighting was not used productively.