Wednesday night a group of demonstrators pulled down lines of barricades, set off flares, lit a fire, and helped a crowd in the thousands to shut down a speech by Breitbart writer and right-wing extremist Milo Yiannopoulos at UC Berkeley. The administration had refused to respect the demand of students and the community to exclude what can only be regarded as an intentional provocation designed to intimidate and silence the targets of Yiannopoulos’ bigotry. And this in turn produced another round of hand wringing from the liberal left about whether it is okay to punch Nazis, shout them down, and deny them the privilege of unobstructed assembly.
Antifa (i.e. anti-fascist) actions are often confusing to those not initiated into far-left politics, and are again in the news after the Feb 1, 2017 shut down. Since antifa members do not often make themselves available for interviews, and mainstream reporters as a matter of course attempt to paint them in the worst possible colors (the afore-linked Guardian pieces being exceptions to the rule), true understanding of the protesters’ perspective can be relegated to relatively isolated circles. Anyone without direct experience of these politics must unearth the relevant issues out from under a rubble of condemnation heaped upon the antifa activists from all corners of respectable society.
We intend to shed some light on this often confused topic. First, to state our position from the outset: we are in strong support of the exemplary antifa action that prevented Yiannopoulos from speaking at Berkeley this week. Neither of us participated in the action ourselves, but we do have experience in far-left politics in the San Francisco Bay Area. Obviously, we don’t claim to speak for any participant in the action; this analysis merely represents our way of thinking about antifa politics.
Fascists Must Be Stopped
It is understandable why antifa politics have resurfaced in the current moment. While we are not of the opinion that the United States is fascist or is descending into fascism, it is clear that actual or aspiring fascists (for instance, the backpfeifengesicht Richard Spencer) do exist in the United States and that they have been empowered by Donald Trump’s presidential election victory.
Fascism is a despicable ideology that, of course, has been responsible for some of the most monstrous crimes of the 20th century. At the risk of courting cliché, we quote the famous poem “First they came…”, a retrospective lament of political inaction during the Nazi’s ascension to power, to review what happens when fascists seize control of the state:
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
This poem provides a roughly accurate chronology of the Nazi regime’s victims. Notice who they target in the first instance: socialists — that is, the political far left. Fascism has not changed its stripes much over the years, so it is reasonable to expect fascists to go about their business similarly if they take power once more. The lesson for the far left is that preventing fascists from taking power is not just a matter of principle, which of course it is, but a matter of self-preservation.
So, fascists must be stopped. They must be stopped at all costs. And this includes confronting them violently in the streets, since they will undoubtedly unleash a whirlwind of violence upon us if we are so negligent as to allow them to grow significantly. Hitler even has an oft-cited quote about how immediate confrontation with a fascist movement in its infancy would have been the only way to truly halt it: “Only one danger could have jeopardised this development – if our adversaries had understood its principle, established a clear understanding of our ideas, and not offered any resistance. Or, alternatively, if they had from the first day annihilated with the utmost brutality the nucleus of our new movement.”
But confronting fascists in the manner which the antifa protesters did in Berkeley does not simply stop the political far-right; it strengthens the political far-left. How? By sending a signal to three groups of people. First, it puts the fascists on notice that they will not be allowed to organize in public without a confrontation. This threat dispirits and disorganizes fascists, which is exactly what the far-left wants. Second, it builds the confidence of the far-left that it is capable of defeating fascism. Third, it demonstrates to third parties — including many that fascists would also like to persecute (e.g. racial, ethnic and religious minorities, LGBTQI individuals, women, etc.) — that far-left politics is a force that will protect them against the threat of fascism. This not only favorably disposes third parties towards the revolutionary left, but also opens the door to those individuals swelling our ranks.
The alternative scenario in which fascists are able to openly organize and demonstrate results in the opposite set of results. The right is empowered, the left is disheartened, and bystanders — including, importantly, vulnerable oppressed groups — become convinced that the far-left does not offer them a dependable protection against fascists. This would be a disaster.
It is often objected that, whatever the threat posed by a fascist gathering, surely the attention that the political right wing brings to the more recherché aspects of antifa actions — property destruction, violence against fascist individuals, black bloc tactics, concealing faces, etc. — will be a greater defeat for the political left. To us, this seems a strange calculation. What could be more dangerous than allowing an incipient fascist movement to blossom? This is not to say that the right-wing media will not disseminate propaganda condemning the antifa action, but, again, is this not less destructive than giving a fascist orator the legitimacy of institutional support and a platform from which to propound his noxious views?
In any event, the political right is bound to propagandize against the left anyways, so trying to placate them as a pivot of the left’s political strategy seems woefully misguided. Furthermore, trumpeting that fascists get assaulted when they show their faces is a key objective of the antifa propaganda effort — if the right wing media (or any party, really) wants to spread that message, it seems like a propaganda victory for the far-left.
Antifa groups are often criticized for attracting repression from police or fascists, without adequately engaging and defending the oppressed who are immediately threatened. Sometimes it can be the case that a poorly conceived or excessively risky action interferes with the success of a broader protest, and black bloc participants should think seriously about the people they affect. But in fact this is a reality that is commonly discussed in such circles.*
The solution is not to condemn the tactics that actually succeed in shutting down the far right, but to incorporate them into well-organized plans for the demonstrations that differentiate the roles activists will play. Antifa actions succeed in the context of large demonstrations in which the participation of the oppressed is in no way secondary, and it is under these circumstances that black bloc actions contribute to successful defense.**
Free Speech: Only for the Bourgeoisie
Another classic objection to antifa politics is that of free speech. Doesn’t attacking fascists when they try to assemble, some question, violate their freedom of speech (in a broad sense; not just the protections in the First Amendment that simply limit the state from restricting speech)? Yes, of course it does. But the revolutionary left would be mistaken to defend freedom of speech on principle — doing so would commit it to a position such as the ACLU’s when it defended the right of Nazis to march through a town of Jewish Holocaust survivors. We have no interest in facilitating the terrorizing of oppressed minorities like the ACLU does.
And demeaning and terrorizing oppressed groups is exactly what Milo Yiannopoulos does. This would be bad enough, but at the UC Berkeley appearance, he was reportedly going to identify undocumented students at the school. This would put those students in direct danger of repression by not just right-wing provocateurs, but by the state. Furthermore, his appearances serve as a rallying point for his “alt-right” followers, one of whom shot an IWW member at a recent event.
Liberals often expect a consistent defense of freedom of speech, while ignoring that this freedom is quite unevenly applied. Preventing bigoted provocateurs like Yiannopoulos from speaking becomes a minor national crisis, while — to mention only one recent example — a coordinated nationwide police attack on protest encampments passes with nary a peep from free speech defenders. Why should the far left defend freedom of speech when it is a principle so often denied to it, specifically for political reasons?
The fact is, freedom of speech is a democratic right vis-a-vis the state, but in capitalist society the ability to speak publicly is controlled by the ownership of meeting spaces, newspapers, salaried website staffs and so forth. Freedom of speech is constitutionally upheld by the government but withheld in practice every time an institution gives its platform to the forces already in power, rather than those oppressed by it. Lenin wrote, “‘Freedom of the press’ in bourgeois society means freedom for the rich systematically, unremittingly, daily, in millions of copies, to deceive, corrupt and fool the exploited and oppressed mass of the people, the poor.” Bannon and his Breitbart cronies (such as Yiannopoulos) entirely agree; only liberals are foolish enough to think that property ownership is not the true meaning of American ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy.’
The alt-right presently commands billions of dollars worth of capital in media access, as well as the support and protection of the executive branch. Yiannopoulos personally benefits from capitalist funding for his politics in a way that socialists, who have much broader support, never will. And UC Berkeley, which is supposed to be an institution for the public, is in fact an arm of the capitalist state offering a scarce resource that, everyone knows, will be used as a platform to attack the oppressed.
Shutting down fascists and racists is not a conflict about free speech but the means for organizing politically. When we prevent the right from gaining strength and credibility by stopping their meetings, we have a better opportunity to organize as workers, and to fight the capitalists directly. Equal access to information is a fundamental demand of socialism, and the way to get it under capitalism is to fight for democratic control of communications by whatever means necessary. The best way to even the scales right now is to disrupt the efforts of the far-right from organizing a fascist weapon that inevitably will be used against us and our own ability to speak. Shutting down fascists is a power that the working class can exercise now, while simultaneously building up its own organizations to communicate and fight better in the future.
Acquaint Them With the Pavement
Yiannopoulos — as well as college Republicans who think they can get away with associating with him and any supporters who might want a safe space to hear his hate speech — are the kinds of people that must be stopped. The (very visible) fear that the antifa protesters have inspired in the Berkeley Republicans will make them — or anyone considering similar action — think twice before pulling a stunt like this again.
For the more militant fascists who use violence against any of the oppressed, it’s worth looking to the recommendation of Leon Trotsky, who prescribed the following antidote (in “Ultraleft Tactics in Fighting the Fascists”):
G]rab every fascist or every isolated group of fascists by their collars, [acquaint them with the pavement a few times, strip them of their fascist insignia and documents, and without carrying things any further, leave them with their fright and a few good black and blue marks.
The slogan “Make fascists afraid again!” should be our standard.
* This article was modified on February 4, 2017 with the inclusion of this paragraph.
** Same as above.