“Such is my aversion to all cult of personality that when I was plagued by repeated attempts to honor me publicly, coming from different countries at the time of the International, I never allowed any of them to break into the public sphere — nor did I ever reply to any of them, except with a snub here and there. When Engels and I first joined the underground Communist League, we demanded the removal of everything in the organization’s statutes that could have encouraged any superstitious awe of authority.”
-— Karl Marx, Letter to Wilhelm Blos, Nov. 1877
On this day in 1979, screen icon and Black Panther supporter Jean Seberg committed suicide following a campaign of harassment by the FBI which tragically resulted in the death of her premature baby exactly 9 years prior. Seberg was one of the most high profile of the many victims of the FBI COINTELPRO program.
Noam Chomsky recently made some comments about antifa, and militant anti-fascism in general, which were as ill-timed as they were ill-informed. Here’s what we think he’s got wrong about the subject.
In the aftermath of Charlottesville, the spotlight has been turned on the reality of fascist violence in America. The murder of Heather Heyer is only the most recent in a year which has seen numerous other killings (such as the two on the Portland MAX in May and Timothy Caughman in New York City), with the 2015 killing of nine worshippers at Denmark Vesey’s church in Charleston by Dylann Roof showing a continuity of far-right violence long before the election of Donald Trump.
Despite all this, many liberal talking heads have also decided that now is the time to condemn those opposing the fascists. Perhaps the most upsetting, has been the intervention of Noam Chomsky, given how important a figure he was to our politics when we were growing up. But what did Chomsky get wrong?
Chomsky describes Antifa as “a minuscule fringe of the Left, just as its predecessors were” with “some limited similarity to the Weather Underground”. While we might take issue with Chomsky’s description of contemporary Antifa, another problem is his misrepresentation of its “predecessors”.
Antifa’s predecessors have almost nothing to do with the Weather Underground. Rather, they can be seen in the mass mobilisation against Mosley’s Blackshirts in Cable Street, East London, as well as less famous mobilisations in Manchester, Liverpool, Newcastle, Hulme and Stockton.
They are the 43 Group and the 62 Group, Jewish-led organisations who took it upon themselves to smash Mosley’s attempts to reorganise after the Second World War. They are in the mass mobilisation of locals in Lewisham, South East London, in 1977, the Southall Youth Movement who fought skinheads in the streets and Anti-Fascist Action, who regularly routed fascists throughout the country from the mid-1980s to the late-1990s.
In Europe, they are the Red Warriors of Paris or the Revolutionary Front in Sweden. And in North America they were the Teamsters who formed a defense guard against the Silver Shirts in the 1930s, or Anti-Racist Action who took on Klansmen and the National Socialist Movement from the 1980s until very recently.
None of these can or should be dismissed as easily as Chomsky seems to.
When the extreme-right get smashed by anti-fascists, they are not exuberant.
When anti-fascists in Liverpool wiped the floor with the 2015 White Man March in Liverpool, they were not exuberant; they were utterly humiliated.
When the English Defence League were chased out of Walthamstow in 2012, they were not exuberant, they were utterly humiliated.
The 43 Group, 62 Group and Anti-Fascist Action successfully disrupted organised street fascism in the UK for decades after World War Two.
In all these cases, physical defeats led to increased divisions in the far-right, mutual recriminations and, most importantly, a puncturing of the invincible street-fighter image these groups like to cultivate for themselves.
Of course they will try and spin every defeat as them being victimised. But, they would just as much spin any unopposed march as a successful show of force, especially if they go searching for targets afterwards, as they have done in the past; ‘ignore fascists until they go away’ only works if you have the privilege of being ignored by them as well.
A physical defeat is not a gift to the militant right; it is one of the most effective ways of keeping them weak.
Perhaps Chomsky’s most dangerous claim is that “What [antifa] do is often wrong in principle – like blocking talks”. We say dangerous because it encourages people to provide space for fascism to grow in.
There is nothing wrong with denying fascists a platform, whether these be rallies, demonstrations, public meetings or debates. Fascists use their platforms to build strength and, as they grow stronger, to attack their opponents.
We are not duty-bound to give fascists somewhere to spread their hate. In 2002, the train drivers’ union, Aslef, expelled a member who had been a local election candidate for the far-right BNP. Perhaps Chomsky thinks this is wrong? Perhaps they were duty bound to accept a member who would sow divisions between white and non-white members? Perhaps Aslef should have organised a public debate to hear him out?
Fascists love it when liberals provide them with a platform. It helps them spread their message so that they can build numbers and confidence to crush their opponents – liberals included.
These platforms – whether on city streets or in debate halls – should not be provided.
Chomsky claims “When confrontation shifts to the arena of violence, it’s the toughest and most brutal who win – and we know who that is”. Yet mass anti-fascist mobilisation can shut down fascists without being ‘the most brutal’. In Liverpool, fascists ran to hide in a train station’s left luggage department after being outnumbered 10-to-1. In Brighton, fascist marches have been made impossible without heavy police escort due to mass local opposition.
Ultimately, the most powerful force in society is the working class. We can always win when we turn out in force.
It is the stuff of far-right fairy tales that they have the monopoly on using violence. The experience of Post-World War Two Britain is that the far-right, for all their bluster, were not as ‘good on the pavement‘ as they thought they were. From the 43 Group to the 62 Group to AFA, the far-right were frequently beaten on the streets.
While it is important that we focus on building mass, working-class anti-racist movements rather than crack squads of elite anti-fascist special forces, it’s also important not to perpetuate the myths which the far-right perpetuate about themselves.
Chomsky’s claim that one of the “costs” of physical confrontation with fascists is the “loss of the opportunity for education, organizing, and serious and constructive activism” is a false division. Moreover, it’s one that shows a lack of real-life contact with anti-fascists.
In reality, anti-fascists often are involved in activity beyond ‘anti-fascism’ whether that be migrant solidarity, union organising, anti-police violence or whatever else. They hold film screenings, concerts and football tournaments. The fact that Chomsky misses all this says more about him than it does anti-fascists.
If people are prepared to put their lives and safety on the line to resist fascism that’s a choice which should be celebrated. Community self-defense can create space for other organising to happen, whereas un-opposed fascists will happily crash and disrupt left meetings and organising.
A big contingent of antifascist mobilisations in the US have been associated with the IWW, a radical union which puts huge importance on serious, constructive education and organising. You can organise at work Monday to Friday and oppose fascists when they occasionally come to town on Saturday, that’s not much of an ‘opportunity cost.’
Ultimately, it’s important to remember that ‘anti-fascism’ will never be enough to defeat fascism; in fact, there is no defeating fascism without defeating capitalism. That means building a mass, working-class political culture that stands as an alternative to both the far-right and the liberal politics of ‘business as usual’: vibrant workplace organisations both inside and out of traditional unions, community groups fighting on housing, police brutality, proper provision for survivors of domestic violence, migrant solidarity, and so much more it couldn’t possibly fit here.
We mustn’t think of antifa as an end in and of itself. But we don’t need the left’s most prominent public intellectuals to throw them under the bus either.
By Enrique Guerrero-López and Adam Weaver
In the era of Trump, there’s a clear and growing interest in socialism, especially among young people. The first measurable shift began to peek over the horizon in polling data done in the wake of the Occupy movement, showing 49 percent of people ages 18-29 favored socialism over capitalism. The political terrain of the US was rocked to such a degree that even the Republicans took “capitalism” out of their talking points. As the narrative of free markets and unquestioned neoliberalism publicly unraveled, we reached the point in 2016 where a majority of those under 30 rejected capitalism and had a positive view of socialism. This crisis of the political establishment was further deepened by the emergence of Black Lives Matter. Ferguson became symbolic of the deep racial inequality that exists across the US, but it was also the rebellion of urban centers like Baltimore — traditionally Democratic and with significant Black elected leadership — which melted away the “post-racial” mythology that took hold during the Obama years.
So when Bernie Sanders stepped into the ring for the 2016 presidential election as the anti-establishment candidate building a “political revolution,” he slid through the door kicked open by social movements, exceeding even his own expectations and gaining unanticipated popularity. The Sanders campaign simultaneously popularized and clouded understandings of socialism. When asked about his vision of socialism during a CNN presidential debate, Sanders responded that we should “look to countries like Denmark, like Sweden and Norway,” conflating a social democratic welfare state with the anticapitalist core of socialism.
Taking a cue from Sanders, we decided to “look to countries like Denmark, like Sweden and Norway” to take a deeper look at social democracy from the perspective of those who live in “actually existing” social democratic countries. We recently spoke with Gabriel Kuhn, an Austrian-born author living in Sweden and involved in radical labor and migrant solidarity efforts, about his analysis and experience of social democracy. Kuhn, the author of numerous books including Antifascism, Sports, Sobriety: Forging A Militant Working-Class Culture, is a member of the syndicalist SAC (Sveriges Arbetares Centralorganisation) and has in recent years mainly been involved in migrant solidarity projects.
Enrique Guerrero-López and Adam Weaver: Through the Bernie Sanders campaign, social democracy reentered public discourse in the US. Sanders and others often point to countries such as Denmark as a model for the US to follow. As someone who grew up and lived in more than one European social democratic country, how would you respond to his supporters?
Gabriel Kuhn: Well, as someone who lived in the US for several years in the 1990s and who visited regularly during the following decade, I guess I understand the sentiment. What I mean is, if social justice, egalitarianism and civility guide your politics, European social democracy has several advantages over US realities: There is a stronger safety net for the sick, the needy and the elderly; higher education is not reserved for the economically privileged; there aren’t significant amounts of the population sitting behind bars (and no one on death row); most workers are unionized; civil rights are not under constant threat by religious fundamentalists and right-wing zealots, and so forth. So, yes, if you want a “better” capitalism, I think you will find it here. But of course, it is still capitalism, with all that entails: individualism, competition, alienation, class divides, the maxim of profitability and the propagation of constant economic growth despite its disastrous social and ecological consequences. This is all just administered differently. Plus — and this is really important — European social democracy, like any type of government in the “First World,” rests on an imperialist system that is everything but social, egalitarian and civil. The state, of course, is very powerful, which wouldn’t appeal to folks with anarchist or left-libertarian leanings. Bureaucracy and red tape are a part of daily life.
With respect to European social democracy serving as a possible model for the US, there is, of course, another thing to consider, namely whether that is at all feasible, even if it was desirable. I doubt that the model could be reproduced in the US. Apart from imperialist exploitation, two factors were key for the growth of social democracy in Western Europe: a strong workers’ movement and the long shadow cast by the Soviet Union on its ruling classes. This context is gone even in Europe, and it never existed in the US in the same way. In addition, there are other historical factors to consider in the US — for example, what J. Sakai calls “settlerism,” notions such as “American exceptionalism” and a deep mistrust of government, both on the left and the right. So I think that if the left in the US wants to make mitigating capitalism’s worst effects a priority — which is, basically, what social democracy has been doing in Europe throughout the 20th century — it needs to develop its own visions and, particularly, strategies. If the focus ought to be on revolutionary politics, it would require a different framework altogether.
A common argument from those on the left who support left-leaning electoral campaigns, such as that of Bernie Sanders, or those who advocate forming a new, independent left party of some sort, is that these campaigns can help support and build social movements. Some highlight the efforts of Bernie Sanders in echoing the demands of Black Lives Matter and immigrant worker struggles as examples. In the European social democratic countries, how would you describe the relationship between electoral politics and social movements, both historically and today?
In order to answer this, I think we need to look at the history of European social democracy. I will try to make this short.
It must not be forgotten that social democracy’s roots are Marxist. The Bolsheviks were originally a faction of the Russian Social Democratic Party. Before World War I, a classless society was the goal of all social democrats, even if there were heated discussion about the right strategy; some favored a parliamentarian, step-by-step approach, others an immediate, insurgent one. Then, three major historical developments successively pushed social democracy further to the right:
1. World War I and the Russian Revolution of 1917 led to a division between the social democratic camp and what now became known as the communist one; the first gathered the critics of the Bolshevik dictatorship of the proletariat, and the second its supporters. (Anarchists, who tried to maintain a third position, lost influence.) In Austria, the so-called Austromarxists were the last social democrats who still pursued a classless society. They tried to build bridges between social democracy and Bolshevism and reserved the possibility of a dictatorship of the proletariat — if need be — in their party platform. The fascist takeover of Austria in 1934 marked not only the end of the Austromarxist era, but the end of social democracy as one of three possible paths to a classless society (communism — or, more precisely, Leninism — and anarchism being the other two).
2. With the rise of fascism, in particular the Nazis’ ascension to power in 1933, and World War II, early 20th-century social democracy was basically wiped out. The social democratic movement that re-emerged from the ashes of World War II was significantly different. Any ambition — or even pretense — of creating a classless society was gone, and the foundations for modern-day social democracy were laid, namely overseeing a more docile version of capitalism, characterized by class compromise, anti-communism and confusing slogans, such as “social market economy.”
3. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the era of neoliberalism basically eradicated all differences between social democratic and bourgeois parties. If the legacy of post-World War II social democracy is preserved at all, then it is in self-proclaimed “left” or “communist” parties, such as Die Linke in Germany or Syriza in Greece. Since 1990, the shift to the right in mainstream European politics has been so strong that positions now considered “extreme left” would have been average social democratic positions even in the 1970s. We are witnessing certain attempts to counteract this development, with left currents in social democracy making themselves heard. In the UK, a representative of this trend, Jeremy Corbyn, is even heading the Labour Party. This is not without significance for public discourse, but the restraints that both the political system and the internal structures put on established power brokers, such as the British Labour Party, limit the impact of these tendencies. There are forces at play that are bigger than politicians’ intentions, no matter how good they might be.
So, to answer your question about the connections between social democracy and social movements against this historical background: Historically, this connection was strong. The workers’ movement, which carried social democracy in the beginning of the 20th century, was a cultural movement going beyond questions concerning wages, working conditions, union representation, housing or social services. It addressed all aspects of life, including the arts, sports and entertainment. In the early 20th century, the rise of social democracy was closely tied to mass movements focusing on everything from the emancipation of women to community education to temperance. (Issues that seemed more obscure — such as sexual liberation or animal rights — found stronger support among anarchists.)
The connection between social democracy and social movements was significantly weakened by the institutionalization of social democracy following World War II. Social democratic politicians have sometimes tried to gain votes by piggybacking on popular social movements (say, the antiwar movement or the anti-nuclear movement), and today’s “left social democrats” certainly try to make this a part of their agenda, but, for the most part, social movements have been considered a nuisance or even a threat to the civil order maintained by social democratic bureaucrats. This is why the so-called green-alternative parties formed across Europe in the late 1970s, hoping to serve as institutional representatives of the social movements that had emerged since the late 1960s, and whose demands the social democrats were both unable and unwilling to meet. Today, of course, most of those parties have become part of the political establishment, too.
I suppose that two factors allowed Sanders to champion social movement support in his campaign: First, an antiestablishment sentiment and turn toward populism and grassroots organizing in general (also on the right); and, second, what’s effectively still a two-party system, which means that no other relevant party on the left occupied that role. What this means for social movements is difficult to say, and I have to leave that analysis to folks on the ground in the US. But of course, there is always the possibility of cutting off movements’ edges to make them appear more acceptable, of compromising their independence by support that is more controlling than generous, and of outright co-opting them for one’s own interests. All of this is hard to avoid if you play the political game.
In the US, critics argue that social democracy has historically rested on both a colorblind populism and a parochial nationalism, which sidesteps an analysis of white supremacy and xenophobia. For example, during the New Deal era in the US, a modern welfare state coexisted with both Jim Crow and Japanese internment camps. What has been the relationship between race, nationalism and social democracy in the Europe?
The critique you’re mentioning certainly applies to European social democracy, too. The way in which many social democrats rallied behind national interests during World War I came as a shock to genuine internationalists, and was a major factor in the following division between the social democratic and communist camps. Even if international solidarity — expressed in support for anticolonial movements, granting asylum to political refugees, or above-the-average foreign aid (it’s a low bar) — has characterized certain social democratic governments until the 1970s, social democracy never overcame the nationalism that is inherent in protecting the rights of a nationally defined working class. In other words, social democracy never did or could live up to true internationalism, which would extend the fight for social justice beyond national borders and attack the imperialist order.
As far as race is concerned, many social democrats were avid followers of eugenics before this so-called science was discredited by the horrors of the Nazi regime. The social democratic embrace of eugenics was related to the idea of creating “healthy,” “advanced,” “higher” human beings. While many social democrats must be credited for their resistance to fascism — which they opposed due to its anti-democratic and chauvinist[ic] character, as well as its hostility toward the workers’ movement and other people’s movements — there were certain ideological overlaps in the 1920s and ’30s. This was also expressed in rhetoric and aesthetics.
An important question, of course, is whether these flaws are inherent in social democracy, or whether they were historical errors that can be overcome. The history of most movements, anarchism included, is stained by shortcomings and embarrassments. However, one thing is certain: The achievements of European social democracy cannot be separated from imperialism and an unjust international order. The combination of economic growth and relative social justice that characterizes European social democracy rests on the exploitation of colonized peoples and cannot be reproduced globally. Global justice requires a very different setting.
In the US, many people equate social democracy with socialism. How would you respond to those who make this claim, and what is your vision for a socialist society?
Social democracy is not socialism. No serious social democrat would claim that either. Historically, social democrats believed that social democracy can pave the way to socialism. Today, hardly any social democrat believes even that.
In a socialist society, the people’s basic needs — housing, shelter, food, health, education, care, access to culture, etc. — are satisfied communally and distributed equally. It is different from a communist society in that it still allows for personal property. It is different from an anarchist society in that it still has governing institutions that are not under direct control of the people. I don’t think we can point to any nation state that has realized socialism, although some — including European social democracies — have obviously come closer than others. Examples for true socialism — historically and presently — might be found in communes, cooperatives and collectives of different stripes, often during times of revolutionary upheaval. They are inspiring, but seldom serve as long-term models for the organization of millions of people. How socialism is going to work on a large scale in the complex world we live in is something we still need to figure out. Stating that it will never work is no answer. It is an ideal well worth fighting for.
Segments of the left in the US, either as organizations or individuals, called for various levels of tactical engagement with the Sanders campaign, arguing that this is an opportunity to advance socialist politics and potentially build a new party of the left. What are some examples of this being attempted in Europe? How has it played out in practice?
I think we need to distinguish between two questions here: One, when is it time for radicals to support candidates in political elections? Two, what is the long-term political prospect of this?
What I’m trying to get at is the following: There are occasions when the outcome of elections makes a big difference, both for the daily lives of millions of people and the possibilities of radical organizing. I know that many anarchists refuse to vote under all circumstances, and as far as I’m concerned, that’s up to them. The “lesser evil” argument certainly isn’t always the best. If you only have terrible options, why would you choose any of them? However, fetishizing voter abstention as a demonstration of political superiority or a criterion for anarchist identity is silly. It turns anarchism into a Christian ethics of conscience, rather than a commitment to social change. I can name numerous recent elections here in Europe where it was very important to vote for or, especially, against certain candidates. We live in dangerous times and there is no place for ideological quirks. And as far as the last presidential elections in the US are concerned — which affect people worldwide, not just in the US — I would have rather seen Sanders become president than Trump or Clinton, so I don’t think there is any shame in people having tried to get him elected.
That’s one thing. The other thing is what you expect from that and how much of your political effort you want to put into this. In other words, if supporting someone like Sanders becomes your political priority, and if you really think it can lead the way to a radical transformation of society, you’re probably doing more damage than good to radical politics. Without a clear revolutionary perspective — and as far as I can tell, Sanders never had one — the changes you can make are limited. You won’t be able to challenge the system itself. If you allow me to return to the opening sentences of this interview: you’ll have “better” capitalism, but that’s it.
As far as the comparison with Europe is concerned, I think the situation in the US with Sanders was rather unique. European radicals argue often enough about whether it’s okay to support certain candidates in elections or not, but very few have illusions about this being anything more than a pragmatic intervention in the political terrain we are forced to operate in — again, concerning how it affects both the daily life of the people and radical organizing. Maybe it’s the two-party system, maybe it’s a question of culture, maybe it’s the lack of a strong social democratic tradition, maybe it’s the sensation of a self-confessed “democratic socialist” running for president — whatever the reasons, the fact that Sanders enthused so many on the left, including the far left, doesn’t really have recent European equivalents. Even when Syriza rose to power in Greece, the understandable excitement was always kept in check by widespread skepticism and apprehension. Whether that makes European radicals more perceptive or just more cynical, I’m not sure.
This is not to say that there isn’t collaboration between radicals and left-wing parties in Europe. In some cases, relatively strong left-wing parties can help extra-parliamentary politics, as long as there are personal contacts, respectful collaboration and an understanding that they are the parliamentary representation of broader struggles. If we take the example of Die Linke in Germany, there is no doubt that it strengthens extra-parliamentary socialist politics through grants, access to infrastructure and information, the influence it has on public debate, etc. As I said before, there is always the danger of co-optation, and radical activists need to be aware of that, but to assume that co-optation is inevitable is not only wrong but also assumes a position of weakness. It is wrong for empirical reasons. If we use the example of Germany, I know many folks doing radical work with the support of Die Linke without being compromised in what they are doing, both because they are aware of the potential pitfalls and because segments within Die Linke see supporting them as an obligation. It assumes a position of weakness because it reckons that any collaboration with less radical forces will necessarily weaken the radical ones. This is a big problem for the advancement of radical politics. While there are historical examples — and certain organizations on the left — that make such a position seem plausible, there is no natural law dictating any such outcome. Whether more or less radical forces will gain from such a collaboration will be determined by taking on the challenge. This is often the only chance for radicals to spread their ideas and gain any broader influence. The alternative is sectarianism and self-marginalization.
There are historical examples that might help illustrate what I mean. The German anarchists Gustav Landauer and Erich Mühsam played a significant role in one of the most exciting chapters of revolutionary history in Germany, namely the Bavarian Council Republic of 1919. Landauer was lynched for his involvement by right-wing soldiers, Mühsam spent years in prison. Both Landauer and Mühsam were outsiders in the German anarchist movement. They were influential in the Bavarian Council Republic because they met, argued and worked with communists and left-leaning social democrats. Most anarchists in Germany at the time organized around a journal called Der Freie Arbeiter and were very critical of Landauer and Mühsam. Their influence on the revolutionary upheavals in Germany at the time was close to zero. This is not where I like to see anarchism.
So, let us return to the present and the specific situation in the US. I don’t have enough insight to say anything about whether a broader socialist movement that gained momentum through the Sanders campaign is able to advance radical politics. But I would say that this needs proper analysis rather than instant dismissal or tantrums about selling out. One important factor to consider is whether the current situation mainly demands defensive measures or whether this is a time for attack. To phrase this in more general terms: At what point does protecting certain social achievements take priority over pushing for revolutionary change? After all, the latter can become a dangerous exercise if the possible outcome is a step back (or several) rather than a step forward, which is the case when right-wing forces are better equipped to use a revolutionary situation to their advantage than left-wing ones. The socialist movement of the 1930s faced similar questions with regard to fascism, and I would argue that the communists’ talk of “social fascism” and the rejection of any collaboration with social democrats undermined the potential of United Front policies. (Many anarchists were guilty of the same mistake, but they were no longer a significant force, so this was less consequential.) In a contemporary US context, with the Trump presidency and the right wing on the offensive, the question becomes: Is it a priority to defend civil rights and social services together with a coalition as broad as possible (not least in order to keep any possibility of future radical offensives alive), or would this mean to settle for less than what’s achievable and abandon radical politics altogether? Finding answers is very difficult, but it needs to happen in order to address the issues you’re raising.
As far as building a party of the left is concerned, I’m not really sure how that would play out in the US. I’m mainly thinking of the electoral system. Basically, in most European countries, you enter parliament if you gather more than 4 or 5 percent of the popular vote. A similar percentage gets you into regional parliaments and city councils. This is why Die Linke in Germany — to continue with this example — is able to provide important infrastructure to extra-parliamentary movements, even if its nationwide support hovers at no more than around 10 percent. The party also receives plenty of media attention, participates in all relevant television debates, has members in federal committees, and the like. In view of the electoral system in the US, it doesn’t seem likely that you reach that level of influence unless you can seriously challenge the two big parties. Under such circumstances, I’m not sure whether building a party is a useful tool to advance the socialist cause, even if you are open [to] broader coalitions. I have heard theories that the Democratic Party could be turned into a left-wing player of sorts. I have a hard time imagining this, considering both the history and composition of the party and the dynamics of US politics, but that’s just my impression from across the pond.
I am convinced that the left needs organizational structures. We need solid frames for networking, collaborating, discussing and coordinating. At the same time, there must be respect for diversity and the autonomy of local groups and caucuses. Whether we need a “party of a different kind” or different names for our organizations seems mainly of academic concern. The wording isn’t all that important. Important is the establishment of organizations that can strengthen socialist politics. This is one of the biggest challenges the left is facing. I believe that in order for these organizations to be effective, they ought to engage various left-wing currents. These, however, must meet on a level playing field without dominant groups absorbing the rest.
Being unabashedly opposed to fascism has become, strangely, a position that requires increasing amounts of justification in modern America. Mainstream voices have used the growth of unapologetic hate movements with codified genocidal platforms to lump groups like antifa and Black Lives Matter in with an ideology whose explicit aims entail mass murder. To assert that the ‘moral weight’ of either side in such clashes is a question of the tactics they employ is to say that White Nationalism is merely another morally subjective political ideology to be given a platform in the marketplace of ideas. Fascism, with all of the violence it necessitates, has emerged from the darkness of intolerable evil into the realm of legitimate discourse. In opposing swift and decisive actions against a growing fascist wing in America, liberals and centrists have granted Nazis and other fascist groups legitimacy as a political movement.
Liberal arguments for fascist sympathy blend together seamlessly with those of the far right. The suggestion that fascists should not be allowed a platform is always met with the same indignant rebuttal.
“But don’t you believe in free speech?”
Such a question always forces me to assess whether standing by my own beliefs is more important than continuing to be heard in a conversation. Of all of the values pounded into our heads by liberal hegemony, the notion of ‘free speech’ simultaneously inspires unprecedented levels of impassioned defense and cognitive dissonance on the part of its supporters.
My disconnect from those who believe in free speech largely stems from the word “believe.” Most of those ravenously asserting a personal belief in free speech feel as though they adhere to free speech as a value. They assert a belief in free speech just as they would their belief in a candidate, a country, or a friend in need of a pep talk.
Before addressing questions of belief in terms of convictions I find it imperative to address the question of belief in a more objective sense. Belief, or disbelief, can be used to denote whether or not I think something exists at all. When someone asks if you believe in chemtrails, the ‘deep state’, or unicorns, these questions are not meant to ascertain where your allegiances lie, but rather, your basis in facts, evidence, and reality.
When you ask if I ‘believe’ in free speech, I view the question with the same regard that you would if I inquired as to your belief in unicorns. You do not stop and consider the question of whether unicorns would hypothetically be a force for good in the world. You don’t ponder the potential morality of a world in which unicorns exist. You would scoff, and say no, because in all of your life experiences, you have encountered no evidence to support their existence.
My own personal feelings about a society in which free, open, unobstructed discourse exists are irrelevant. I do not believe in free speech in that I find it ridiculous to think we currently live or for that matter ever have lived in such a society. Free speech as it pertains to the US should be viewed in the same light as any other national myth which abstractly conveys a hypothetical value system. Nice enough on paper, utterly non-existent in practice.
Yes, I do, as an American, have the ‘right’ to spew vile hatred for any demographic I so choose. After all, those who believe in the lie of free speech will religiously maintain that the most vile of speech is the most in need of protection. Any society which disallows the open advocation of genocide is on the slippery slope to fascism, so they say.
It is true that short of sending out actual death threats, there is very little which I can say as an individual that would put me at risk of being harmed or jailed by the state. In this sense I have the full freedom to speak as I so choose, with the caveat that I will no doubt find myself on a watchlist or two. For most liberals, this is enough proof that the state allows for all forms of expression. I will concede that in this regard, the vast majority of us are allowed the right to say whatever we please.
But the free speech fantasy crumbles time and time again once said speech becomes a credible threat to state power. Although impassioned and subversive, the rhetoric of Martin Luther King alone would not have been enough for the FBI to attempt blackmailing King into killing himself. Many a speaker before and after MLK have spouted much more incendiary rhetoric, but they did so before smaller crowds. The state fought MLK because he was influential. Though King advocated for nonviolence, his rhetoric against racism, war, and poverty undermined the neoliberal capitalist state’s legitimacy and posed a credible threat to its continued existence. The Black Panther Party, anti-war activists, and the Communist Party faced similar attacks in the era of COINTELPRO.
The state and its apologists point adamantly toward every madman going blue in the face, screaming about revolution on a street corner, as testament to the freedom allowed in our society. The state will always nobly tout the madman’s first amendment rights as inviolable right up to the when the madman strikes a chord and people start listening. Then the state will destroy him and whatever movement he helps to build. Infiltration, sabotage, blackmail, arrest, demonization through the media; all of these tools are still employed by the state against rhetorically subversive movements.
It should come as no surprise that the current administration is flirting with fascist rhetoric and tendencies. Donald Trump slashed funding for government commissions against right wing terror as one of his first actions in office. Still, all bureaucracies have internal tensions. Fascism will inevitably come when the majority of neoliberal elites can no longer rationalize the hegemony of such a violent, unscientific, illogical system as capitalism via democratic means. Trump and his cabinet of sycophants face so much backlash from within their own government because the majority of the state’s servants still cling to the notion that capitalist hegemony can be fixed or sustained. While the presence of a handful of fascist apologists and sympathizers within the ranks of the government is a disturbing sign of things to come when capitalism inevitably decays, it is not enough in and of itself to declare that we live under a fascist state which serves explicitly fascist interests. The state in its current form still exists to serve the interests of neoliberal capitalism, in spite of its utter and apparent failure.
The state combats and opposes overt White supremacy only because it undermines and brings to light its own system of covert White supremacy, one in which neoliberal capitalism is given false legitimacy through psuedo-democracy. They find it disastrous for the state’s agenda to have groups openly calling minorities subhuman only because it calls into question the guise of equality and legitimacy worn by our capitalist, White supremacist system. Neoliberal politicians will go blue in the face reminding their constituents that markets are blind, and I must say that I am inclined to agree. Markets are indeed so conveniently blind to the centuries of oppression which undermine any real chance for disadvantaged groups to gain ground in a fake meritocracy, enforced by a state which violently suppresses dissent.
There is no free speech in practice for those who live hand to mouth. There is no free speech in practice for those whose educational systems are funded by paltry tithes from their own already destitute communities. There is no free speech when police have been given free reign to publicly execute minorities on the grounds that they are perceived as dangerous. Smoking a joint, playing with a toy gun, selling loose cigarettes, and owning a legal firearm have been upheld by our so-called justice system as grounds for murder. Police now operate with the understanding that merely perceiving a minority as dangerous will allow them to play the role of judge, jury, and executioner with impunity. The only reasonable conclusion to draw is that the same system which views ‘smelling marijuana’ as grounds to view a black or brown person as a credible threat would no doubt give the same pass for inflammatory ‘anti-police’ rhetoric. The precedent has been set that the rights of people of color end where the feelings of police begin.
Similarly it is no wonder that freedom of expression is given on paper so liberally to those denied the means to effectively express themselves. Heinously underfunded schools provide poor, disproportionately nonwhite children a quantifiably subpar education. This two fold attack on freedom of expression not only creates an uphill battle for those who are denied the rhetorical tools to most effectively articulate themselves; it also creates a rigid underclass with little options beyond wage slavery. Being forced into perpetual impoverishment denies the poor the luxury of abstract intellectual and ideological pursuits. In theory these impoverished individuals have the right to self advocate and peacefully demonstrate against the system, but most choose to prioritize not starving. All of these factors allow for the state to grant unprecedented levels of freedom on paper while effectively stifling free speech and expression. The gaping chasm between the supposed ideals of the state and the reality of their system’s consequences can only be reconciled by understanding that free speech in a capitalist society is a privilege reserved for the few. As it applies to the rest of us, it serves as a tool to insinuate that those who oppose the state are opposed to a free society. Those unheard masses are ridiculed for not using the plethora of rights they’ve been granted, in name and in name alone, in order to further themselves and their movements via legal and peaceful means. The state crafted the rules such that it can’t lose, and those who refuse to play a rigged game are locked in cages for it.
The neoliberal capitalist state cares little for principles, and as such it will not hesitate to break its own rules when threatened. Any credible threat to the state will find itself infiltrated and demonized. Its leaders will be vilified, blackmailed, and even killed. Since COINTELPRO, the state has only expanded the arsenal of tools it employs against genuine workers’ movements on the behalf of capital. Having access to the phone calls, emails, and texts of every American citizen makes it possible for the state to merely rifle through our communications for anything that could be used to incriminate, embarrass, or blackmail potential subversives. The existence of these databases would have remained a secret forever if not for Edward Snowden, and it was only when this information was dragged forcibly into the light that the state began insisting that all of our data was used for strictly ‘legal’ means. The notion that the NSA and those state agents that use NSA surveillance data do so with a respect to our privacy is a lie on its face. The tactics and methodology of the state have consistently shown disregard for our supposed rights at best, and contempt at worst.
Free speech is not under attack in America because free speech has never existed in America. To disbelieve in free speech is not to declare war on self expression; it is an acknowledgement of reality. Neoliberal capitalism backed by a police state will always be antithetical to free speech in practice; a system so easily discredited by honest scrutiny can only continue to exist through the threat of force. To say communities have no right to fight back against fascists who seek to rot said communities to their core only serves to force dependence upon the state, which asserts that no violence is morally justified, save for its own.
The fact that fascists feel emboldened enough to directly threaten and at times outright attack people of color, LGBTQ people, and all who dare to oppose them is nothing but a failure on the part of all of us who could have been doing more to protect our own. The present situation would not be so dire had this new, fascist resurgence been stamped out in its earliest stages, before it had the chance to grow and take root.
It is implicitly built into the fascist platform that might makes right. The fascists that liberals protect will take power by any means necessary, and enact their genocidal platform in any capacity which they are able. The National Socialists in Germany did not wait for a mandate from the people; when they took power by force it was with a mere 30% support, and there is no doubt that America’s own growing demographic of racist thugs would kill and maim even more people on the path to even a fraction of such a figure. To assert that Fascists could never have the numbers to gain power through electoral means is to miss the point entirely. Fascists will never seek democratic legitimacy, because legitimacy is not needed to further a fascist platform and cause real destruction in the immediate. The spreading of fascist thought in and of itself will lead to more hate crimes, more dog whistle politics, and more fear within minority communities regardless of some perceived ceiling on its appeal.
Defending the free speech of fascists is an action which prioritizes the mythology of a state with no regard for such rights in practice over the very real and tangible suffering of those whom fascists seek to destroy. Fascists who kill are violent, as are fascists who celebrate violence committed by their kind, as is a fascist holding a sign minding their own business. Those who quietly advocate ethnic cleansing are admitting outright that the only thing preventing their direct involvement and endorsement of mass murder in the present moment is an insufficient power base. Every single fascist will become a violent fascist when given the numbers and strength to act with impunity. Liberals who ‘play by the rules’ are directly complicit in allowing these devastating consequences to come to fruition. Obsessing over the legality of your own activism is setting yourself up for defeat when facing opponents with no regard for such constructs. We will only win this fight if we are willing to take a page from the playbook of our enemies. Fascists and the state alike are never shy about doing what is necessary to propagate themselves. They will ignore the rule of law, the value of human life, and the cognitive dissonance of their own actions at the drop of a hat so long as doing so allows for their continued existence.
I would argue that our fight is much more important. We are not fighting for the continued existence of a self-serving power structure, but rather for the continued existence of our friends and neighbors. Their lives, and our lives, are at stake, as is the dream of a world in which all people can feel accepted.
A polite, peaceful fascist is a snake waiting to bite the hand that coddles it. Any liberals who champion the rights of Nazis should enjoy the high of perceived moral superiority while it lasts. When it’s you that the snake bites, you’ll probably just be left wishing you crushed its head when you had the chance.
“In Mexico, in parallel to the contemporary authoritarianisms that took the lives of thousands in Brazil, Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay, the “Dirty War” of the 60s and 70s saw the full repressive power of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) directed against leftists, youth, organizers, and the landless peasantry in the wake of the Tlatelolco massacre of October 2, 1968. The State murdered hundreds of students in Mexico City that day, and the PRI forcibly disappeared and extrajudicially executed thousands more as part of its counter-insurgent strategy to suppress the generalized societal outrage provoked by the same. The EZLN itself was founded in 1983 as a union between landless indigenous Chiapanecxs and urban-based mestizo and European-descended militants from the Fuerzas de Liberación Nacional (FLN), which had been created in 1969—much as the ten-year Colombian civil war known as La Violencia that claimed thousands of lives catalyzed the founding in 1964 of the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) and the ELN (National Liberation Army). The neo-Zapatista insurrection on January 1, 1994, proclaimed a radical halt to the ceaseless ethnocide targeting indigenous peoples since the Spanish conquest. The rapid response of domestic and international civil society to the uprising limited the intensity of direct repression by the Mexican Army, resulting paradoxically in the PRI’s resorting instead to employing paramilitary terror against Zapatista support-bases and Zapatista-sympathizing communities in Chiapas—a strategy that continues to this day. Following the inevitable breakdown of negotiations with a racist State failing to observe the San Andrés Accords (1996), the EZLN focused intensely on furthering communal autonomy by strengthening the participatory alternate institutions that comprise the movement which exists alongside the military structures, including cooperatives, autonomous education, the public health sector, and popular assemblies. This project of autonomy advanced importantly in 2003 with the announcement of the Good-Government Councils (JBG’s), comprised of delegates, sometimes as young as adolescents, who rotate in the administration of the five regions of Chiapas in which the EZLN has a presence.
Hence, while it is true that the EZLN’s initial uprising sought to inspire a regional- or country-wide revolution to take over the State—with the Zapatistas hoping to march on Mexico City and liberate it once again—the neo-Zapatista movement has distinguished itself from other Latin American guerrilla struggles by the anti-electoralism and anti-statism that has defined the development of its autonomy. A decade ago, the EZLN launched La Otra Campaña as an effort to unite a nation-wide anti-authoritarian left alternative to political parties and the State amidst the ongoing battle for power between the right-wing National Action Party (PAN) and Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the social-democrat candidate, in the 2006 elections. In parallel, la Sexta Declaración de la Selva Lacandona (Sixth Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle ) proudly declared the movement’s autonomy in search of a new constitution that would meet its original thirteen demands. Yet now, after having championed autonomous social organization as a viable alternative for over a decade, the EZLN joins its comrade-representatives from the National Indigenous Congress (CNI) in endorsing the proposal for an Indigenous Government Council (CIG) and in presenting the Nahua traditional healer María de Jesús “Marichuy” Patricio Martínez as CIG spokesperson, councilor, and candidate for the 2018 presidential elections. The CNI describes this move as “going on the offensive,” and it paradoxically claims not to want to administer power but rather to dismantle it. Since the announcement, Marichuy and comrades have stressed that the focus is not on the ballot but rather favoring “organization, life, and the defense of territory.” Yet the conclusion of the Fifth CNI in early 2017 is clear: the CIG is meant to “govern this country.” It remains to be seen how this move will play out, and how it will affect the Zapatista movement and autonomous indigenous movements elsewhere in Mexico and Latin America. We imagine that this shift toward electoralism is being met with a degree of resistance within Zapatista ranks, particularly among the youth who have been raised with the JBG’s and la Sexta.”