Following the murder of Heather Heyer in Charlottesville, Donald Trump enraged half of the US population once again by blaming both sides (Nazis and anti-Nazis) for the reckless and deliberate killing of the peaceful protester. A few days after condemning the “violence and bigotry on many sides”, he asserted that “there was a group on this side, you can call them Left (…) that came violently attacking the other group.”
As disgusting as it is, Trump’s response is hardly a surprise. What is more striking, however, is that renowned leftists condemn antifa actions with comparable energy.
Famous linguist and household name for the US left, Noam Chomsky, told the Washington Examiner that antifa is “a major gift to the Right, including the militant Right, who are exuberant.” The argument goes like this: Anti-fascist mobilizations, instead of being a check against unabashed racism and bigotry, only serve to fan the flames of fascism. This claim has been a historic trademark of American liberalism.
Noam Chomsky’s unfortunate remarks, however, pale in comparison with Chris Hedges’s troubling venting.
In a recent article on Truthdig entitled “How Antifa Mirrors the Alt-right,” Hedges condemns violence on both sides–much in the way Donald Trump did. In his view, antifa and the Nazis are two sides of the same coin. He goes on to say that in both cases “they hold themselves up as the vanguard of the oppressed. They arrogate to themselves the right to use force to silence those they define as the enemy. They sanctify anger. They are infected with the dark, adrenaline-driven urge for confrontation that arises among the disenfranchised when a democracy ceases to function.”
Hedges equates violence against Black people, Jews, Muslims, and immigrants with legitimate self-defense by oppressed communities or by those who organize and defend them against the fascists. He arrives at this absurd assertion because he overemphasizes what is really a question of tactics to such an extent as to preclude all other discussions. In effect, the only variable Hedges analyzes is violence: yes or no. But it is dishonest to pose a moral equivalence between the use of force by the would be victims in their own defense against a violent right wing assault.
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Hedges doesn’t seem to recognize the difference between a KKK mob and a group of protesters who organize against the Nazis or the Klansmen. Chris: there’s a qualitative difference! Hedges is trying to argue from a “neutral” political point of view, but there is no such thing in politics. The very characteristic of fascists is the claim of superiority and the subsequent violent oppression of racialized communities. Moreover, “right-wing extremists” murdered 275 people in the past 10 years, while antifa killed none.
And let’s get one thing out of the way: Unnecessary or illegitimate use of force (by illegitimate, I mean the violence perpetrated by a small group in a larger crowd or by individuals isolated from the working population) may backfire in different ways. Heroic acts of individuals attacking a hated politician, adventurist confrontations with the forces of the state, and incidents where a small group disrupts a much larger mobilization can all result in a backlash in the form of police crack-downs, negative public opinion and, ultimately, the neutralization of a large number of activists who get trapped in expensive and demoralizing legal battles against the state. But this is not a moral judgement; it’s a question of strategy and tactics.
However, this was not the case in Berkeley, nor was it the case in the shut-down of crypto-fascist Milo Yannopoulos’s conference back in February. The mass mobilization that thwarted both events was a political victory for the socialist and democratic camp, against racism and bigotry. Chris Hedges thinks the Milo shut-down was a political theater [to] give self-styled radicals a stage [for] elevating their self-image., a superficial and inaccurate claim.
Advocating for peace is not always right. When it comes to class war in particular, neutrality simply masks bourgeois or petty bourgeois politics. When Chris Hedges equates violence coming from the oppressed, the left, the anti-fascists with that coming from the Nazis emboldened by President Trump, he is advancing a vulgar horseshoe theory where the two extremes of the political spectrum resemble one another.
Furthermore, he extends this assessment to several other conflicts as diverse as the fight between Nazi Stormtroopers and Red Front Fighters in the 20s and 30s in Germany, or the confrontation between Argentine guerrilla groups and the paramilitary shock troops (Triple A) under the order of Juan Perón in the 70s, a prelude to the bloodiest military dictatorship in the country’s history.
This narrative was used at the end of the dictatorship to justify the state terrorism that took the lives of 30,000 workers and political activists. In Argentina, it is known as the “theory of the two demons,” and only the extreme right reproduces this argument today. The use of the repressive forces of the state to physically eliminate the opposition cannot be equated with the use of force by a political group — however unsuccessful — in order to advance their program and fight state repression. Again, the difference is qualitative and has significant political implications.
Open violence by an isolated individual or a small group of people will most likely face not only repression by the state but also public condemnation. This is exactly why Chris Hedges’s discourse is so dangerous: It adds fuel to the fire. Mainstream media outlets have eagerly seized the “beat the antifa” moment. The Washington Post has run several scathing articles in the past few days, calling anti-fascists thugs, holding false claims from the flimsy Black Book of Communism. Nancy Pelosi jumped on the bandwagon and blasted the antifa activists in Berkeley. Predictably, the liberal media defended the sanctity of free speech above all rights.
Limits to Free Speech
Free speech, just like freedom and democracy or justice are floating signifiers. That is, the actual meaning of the term can vary dramatically depending on the context, the actor putting it forth, the historical moment, or the person receiving the message. The Free Speech Movement in the 1960s was very progressive and naturally converged with Civil Rights and antiwar activism. The target of its critiques and demands were the government and the universities as institutions of the existing power. Free Speech advocates today, however, are either staunch conservatives or confused liberals.
But their position vis-a-vis the state is not the only mark of its bourgeois character. Any discussion around freedom and democracy needs to be framed and informed by material and historical conditions. To defend “free speech” in a vacuum, with no real analysis of who gets the mic to speak, is a cover for silencing the poor, the racialized, and the oppressed. Or do those advocates of free speech intend to defend the right of precarious workers to talk to their coworkers about working conditions and unionizing? The truth is that the free speech defenders today do not talk about those who have no voice: the undocumented farm workers picking fruit in California or people living abroad who are regularly hit by drone attacks.
In the same vein, shallow talk of democracy only serves to uphold a system that systematically marginalizes and excludes part of its population. Real democracy also means economic democracy: the elimination of the tyranny of capital, equal distribution of wealth and income, and the democratic governance of production processes. But even without considering economic justice, democracy and freedom mean respecting the voice and rights of minority groups, racialized ethnicities, oppressed communities. Nazi rallies are a flagrant violation of that freedom. The right wing is a direct offense and a very real threat to the physical safety of workers and the oppressed.
Overlooking this inherent aspect of fascists and Nazis leads to the naturalization of racism and allows the movement to grow. We need to fight this naturalization. We need to fight fascists, outnumber them on the streets, suppress them, squash them.
On strategy and tactics
Fascists need to be fought, but not in an isolated or adventurist manner. Working-class organizations are in the best position to successfully fight back fascists. The dockworkers of the ILWU local 10 offer a lesson on how to confront fascists: When they learned that a Nazi rally was planned to take place in the Bay Area, they issued a “Motion to Stop the Fascists in San Francisco,” and when a significant number of people pledged to join the counter-protests, the Nazis were forced to cancel their demonstration. This is not the first time ILWU Local 10 has demonstrated the potential of unions in advancing working class politics.
Shutting down fascists is exactly what we need to do right now. The slightest hesitation at this point, when the Nazis are still a fringe, will be paid for in the future if we let them thrive.
Adventurist, ultra-left, and isolated actions can alienate the most radicalized elements from the bulk of activism, and can have harmful consequences for the anti-fascist movement if the state takes advantage of this split. And it will. A strategy to defeat fascists has to be based on mass mobilizations. But the discussion about tactics should never be taken to the absurdity of placing Nazis and antifa activists at the same level. This is the best gift for the Right.