Is Violence The Way To Fight Racism?

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Above photo: From Baltimore City Paper.

PRINCETON, NJ – Should rallies by neo-Nazis and white supremacists be met with violence?

That question was raised by the tragic events in Charlottesville, Virginia, on August 12. White supremacists held a rally to protest the planned removal from a public park of a statue of Robert E. Lee, the leader of the Confederate army during the Civil War. A counter-protest was organized, and street fighting broke out. A woman, Heather Heyer, was killed and 19 people injured when James Fields, a white nationalist, drove his car at high speed into a crowd of counter-protesters.

At a subsequent press conference, President Donald Trump said that “both sides” were to blame for what happened. Trump’s apparent equation of racists and opponents of racism was condemned in the strongest terms, even by some leading Republicans. There can, of course, be no equating of neo-Nazis and white supremacists with those who oppose racism. But a close reading of the transcript of Trump’s remarks suggests that a more charitable interpretation is possible.

Rather than putting the racists and anti-racists on the same footing, Trump was saying that both sides were to blame for the violence that broke out. In support of that claim, he said that some on the left “came charging with clubs in their hands, swinging clubs,” and added: “Do they have a problem? I think they do.”

That statement still ignores the fact that a white supremacist used his car as a weapon, with lethal results. Nothing comparable was done by any of the anti-racists.

Still, it is true that, as journalists covering the event for The New York Times reported, some of the counter-protesters used clubs against white nationalists, one of whom left the park bleeding from the head. The Times was careful to note that many of the counter-protesters were non-violent, but in a subsequent article, the newspaper described the growth of a loose association of leftists who call themselves “antifa,” a term derived from “anti-fascist,” and are ready to fight neo-Nazis with sticks and fists.

In interviews, antifa activists explained their position. “You need violence to protect nonviolence,” said Emily Rose Nauert. “That’s what’s very obviously necessary right now. It’s full-on war, basically.” Other antifa activists said that it is not unethical to use violence to stop white supremacists, because they have already, by stirring up hatred against minorities, caused violent attacks on individual members of those groups.

The Times also spoke to anti-racist activists who disavow violence. They follow the example of the strictly nonviolent forms of civil disobedience successfully used in the civil rights movement during the 1950s and 1960s under the leadership of Martin Luther King. In contrast, antifa supporters say that racists and white nationalists are not rational, so there is no point in trying to persuade them that they are wrong. Physical force is the only thing that will stop them.

Let’s grant that the antifa activists are right about the irrationality of hard-core racist fanatics. It remains true that in the United States, and other countries where elections are the path to power, the far right can achieve its goals only by winning over middle-of-the-road voters. Even if many of these voters are also not completely rational – few people are – they are not likely to be won over to the anti-racist cause by seeing footage of anti-racists hitting racists with clubs or throwing urine-filled water bottles.

Such images convey, more than anything else, the idea that anti-racists are hooligans looking for a fight. Dignified nonviolent resistance and disciplined civil disobedience are more conducive to demonstrating a sincere ethical commitment to a better, non-racist society than clubbing people and hurling piss at them.

Violent resistance is particularly dangerous in the US because some states allow anyone to carry a firearm. In Charlottesville, a large number of white supremacists paraded through the streets dressed in camouflage and carrying semi-automatic assault rifles. If the antifa activists are going to match the racists in violence, will it be possible to hold the line at clubs? How long will it be before the deadly weapons now openly on display are also used?

Some antifa activists trace the origin of the movement to groups that fought against fascists in Europe in the 1920s and 1930s. In Germany, in the years before Hitler came to power, the Nazis’ paramilitary Sturmabteilung (Stormtroopers, also known as the “Brownshirts”) beat up, sometimes fatally, Jews and political opponents. In self-defense, the left responded with its own militias: the Communist Party’s Red Front Fighters and the Social Democrats’ Iron Front.

The result was an escalation of street violence, and a sense, among the wider public, that law and order were breaking down. Many came to believe that a firm hand was required to restore order and stability. A firm hand was exactly the image that Hitler was trying to project, and as the violence worsened, the Nazi vote rose. We all know how that tragedy played out.

Is it far-fetched to think that history could repeat itself in this way? To antifa activists who see violence as the answer to the far right, it should not be. They are the ones who are drawing the historical parallels. The Times quotes an antifa activist: “If we just stand back, we are allowing them to build a movement whose end goal is genocide.” If that is the danger, we need to find a better way of combating it than the tactic that so plainly failed in Germany.

  • Aquifer

    Very good!

  • Atomsk

    Let’s grant that the antifa activists are right about the irrationality of hard-core racist fanatics. It remains true that in the United States, and other countries where elections are the path to power, the far right can achieve its goals only by winning over middle-of-the-road voters. Even if many of these voters are also not completely rational – few people are – they are not likely to be won over to the anti-racist cause by seeing footage of anti-racists hitting racists with clubs or throwing urine-filled water bottles.

    This is of course nonsense. Elections are not “the path to power” in the US, or any other bourgeois democracy. They are at most a way to decide which faction of the ruling class gains more political power. This is why it is possible for a quasi-fascist like Trump to gain power while someone pretending to be a lukewarm social democrat is openly cheated and undermined. Iow: elections can be a path to power for fascists but they cannot ever be a path to power for socialists. They work for the right, but not for the left.

    Violent resistance is particularly dangerous in the US because some states allow anyone to carry a firearm. In Charlottesville, a large number of white supremacists paraded through the streets dressed in camouflage and carrying semi-automatic assault rifles. If the antifa activists are going to match the racists in violence, will it be possible to hold the line at clubs? How long will it be before the deadly weapons now openly on display are also used?

    Except they didn’t “match” the racists in violence, obviously. And btw, the police and most of the establishment is reliably behind them in general. Now, there’s a bit of an opening because Trump is impractically open about his fascism.

    Some antifa activists trace the origin of the movement to groups that fought against fascists in Europe in the 1920s and 1930s. In Germany, in the years before Hitler came to power, the Nazis’ paramilitary Sturmabteilung (Stormtroopers, also known as the “Brownshirts”) beat up, sometimes fatally, Jews and political opponents. In self-defense, the left responded with its own militias: the Communist Party’s Red Front Fighters and the Social Democrats’ Iron Front.

    The result was an escalation of street violence, and a sense, among the wider public, that law and order were breaking down. Many came to believe that a firm hand was required to restore order and stability. A firm hand was exactly the image that Hitler was trying to project, and as the violence worsened, the Nazi vote rose. We all know how that tragedy played out.

    The Nazis were *way* more violent than the Communists, both in 1932 and in 1933. Violence didn’t hurt them. And in the November elections their support *decreased significantly* compared to the July ones.

    The Commies turned out to be right: the Nazis (whom the leadership of the West sympathised with quite a bit for a long while and whose remnants were used by the imperialists to fight against the Communists everywhere) had to be fought with force.

    But…this is not the real issue. The real issue is that *despite knowing what the Nazis are*, despite *knowing the history of fascism*, the bourgeois “resistance” thinks it’s more important to smear leftists and especially Communists then to fight fascists. They whine about “violence” when they know very well from history that the fascist violence they are effectively defending is leagues above the “threat” from the antifascists. Why would they do this, I wonder?

    They have to do this by pretending that people are full on idiots, by pretending they cannot learn from history, forcing their primitive and idiotic idealist interpretation of historical events on people. No, it was NOT leftist violence that led to the (kind of) election of Nazis. No, the solution is not to give up all use of violence. Even if a few overenthusiastic kids (and, as we know from Western history, many more well paid provocateurs and infiltrators) resort to proactive violence, we should stand behind them and leave the tactics to the organising groups.

    No, decent people will absolutely NOT abuse these mistakes to side with the fascists or to pretend that fascists and antifascists are the same. Only the *anti leftist* middle class, who dislikes the left even more than the right will do that.

  • Orestes60

    I can’t disagree.
    How can we resist?

    It might, therefore, be thought that freedom from prison was a “principle of the America” but in fact this was not the case. Tom Paine summarized the ramifications, “Every place has its Bastille, and every Bastille its despot.” The first penitentiary in the world based on the principles of solitary confinement and incessant work began to be constructed in Philadelphia, the capital of the USA in 1790, the Walnut Street Jail. George Washington was president. A year or two later the Buttonwood Agreement was signed in New York setting up the stock exchange in Wall Street. Meanwhile George Washington attended the yard of the Walnut Street jail to witness the first hot-air balloon ascent in continental America. Taking a long view of American history from then to now we discern from these three facts – prison, stock exchange, and air travel – three principles: the principle of incarceration, the principle of avarice, and the principle of air war.

    With Washington presiding over the penitentiary and Paine locked up in a Paris prison, what had happened? The revolution of 1776 was not the same as that of 1789. As far as America was concerned that of 1776 was against British empire and that of 1789 was for an American empire. 1789 in France meant revolution but in the USA it meant counter-revolution.

    How might we reverse the disaster? The short answer was enunciated clearly at the time, it is omnia sunt communia, or “all things in common.” This is a Biblical expression describing the practices of the down trodden of the Roman Empire, it is the slogan of the massive peasant revolt of central Europe beginning in 1526, and it is the title of an extraordinary new book by Massimo De Angelis. The book, the slogan, and the practice call for new ways of constituting human societies where enclosure, imprisonment, slavery, and war are no longer the means of production and reproduction. ~ “Omnia Sunt Communia: May Day 2017″ by Peter Linebaugh

    Have you come across these books yet? The second one has been referred to often in my reading.
    Massimo De Angelis, Omnia Sunt Communia: On the Commons and the Transformation to Postcapitalism (New York: Zed Books, 2017)

    Edward Baptist, The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism (New York: Basic Books, 2014)

  • Mr. Z

    Fantastic bit of writing, A.

  • Atomsk

    Not really. This: https://ara-la.tumblr.com/post/164724019135/whats-wrong-with-chris-hedges-view-that-antifa however, linked by WhiteRoses, is actually really, really good.

  • Mr. Z

    Just saw it. Brilliant!!!

  • collectivist

    Read it. Great.

  • collectivist

    I’m beginning to love ‘rednecks’ after reading this, comrade: Redneck Revolt Builds Anti-Racist Working Class White Movement | PopularResistance.Org
    https://popularresistance.org/redneck-revolt-builds-anti-racist-working-class-white-movement/

  • Mr. Z

    Kinda’ gives REDneck a whole new meaning, huh? Great stuff.

  • collectivist

    As an African American, this makes me proud to call myself a RED neck. Lol

    A few of us here are diligently studying these guys. Interesting. More interesting, imo, than MOST left groups I’ve met or been exposed to in 45 years. . .and I’m familiar with quite a few.

    Solidarity

  • Jean-Marc in Canada

    As long as all concerned understand that by using violence, you accept all the consequences that come with it. If you punch a Nazi (which can’t deny is delightful), you best be ready to be punched back. Bring a knife, they bring a gun. Bring a gun, they bring a cannon. And so on and so forth. Either way, this is not going to be pretty or bloodless…we’ve already seen a tragic death. Sadly, I believe this is going to come to a head and when it does…..let’s just say their going to need body bags.