“The weeping and wailing about the Nazi’s ‘rights’ can safely be left to the prissy liberals and phony democrats,” wrote the heroic American Trotskyist Farrell Dobbs in 1939. “The self-preservation of the working class demands that it cut through all abstract chatter and smash the fascist gangs by decisive and relentless action.”
Just months before, 20,000 members of the German American Bund had filled Madison Square Garden, saluting Hitler and George Washington as their leader Fritz Julius Kuhn warned of a Bolshevik-Jewish conspiracy to take over the United States. From London and Barcelona to New York and Beijing fascist paramilitaries were battling with workers organizations as the public abandoned long-standing philosophical and spiritual institutions and embraced the radical and new. Already socialists and gays across Germany were being herded into camps, forced to build the gas chambers that would soon suffocate entire nations of untermenschen. In less than a year, fascism would assert itself as a global political force and drag 40 million lives into the dust of a desperate brawl for the future of humanity.
For the first time since the 1930s, so-called liberal democracy has lost its hegemonic foothold in the West. As far-right parties gain electoral ground across Europe, the most powerful governments in the world are offering concession after concession to self-described neo-Nazis. The President of the United States is a demagogic kleptocrat who never won the popular vote, and clings to power only by spewing nonsensical racist vitriol to a tiny but deafening base. A new generation of American men are openly embracing an oddly postmodern fascism that pronounces itself “alt-right.” Their ideology appears to be one part bored nihilism, one part sexual frustration, and several parts media-fueled delirium, and it has already proven murderous.
It is not, then, unreasonable that the American radical left has returned to Dobbs’s thesis – the defeat of the far right is our unconditional and existential responsibility. President Trump draws an equivalency between the alt-right and the (nonexistent) “alt-left,” universities offer platforms to white nationalists like Milo Yiannopoulos and Steve Bannon, and the mainstream media has proven happy to amplify hate groups while ignoring or demonizing left-of-center movements from the Keystone Pipeline water protectors to Black Lives Matter. And so the American left, coalescing under the unimpeachable umbrella of antifascism or “antifa,” has adopted a strict corrective strategy: it is wrong to debate or engage with Nazis, it is right to punch Nazis, Nazis forfeit their rights by being Nazis, the left should focus on “Not Rights but Justice,” as Natasha Lennard demanded in The Nation last August.
In her nuanced and powerful defense of the antifa position, Lennard wrote, “The onus is on centrists and liberals to examine their own values if they would rather decry counter-violence of those who would put their bodies on the line against neo-Nazis than embrace a diversity of tactics in the face of the intractable problem of racism in America.”
Her sentiments are echoed in a growing body of literature that defines axiomatically the distinction between liberals and leftists as a schism stemming from their approach towards the far right. Those accused of “liberalism” are those who claim to oppose fascism, but advocate for the neo-Nazis’ freedom of speech and lament antifa’s (very rarely) violent clashes with the alt-right. And those comfortably on the “left” are those who embrace antifa’s modus operandi of resisting fascism “by any means necessary,” which largely means counter-protests at alt-right rallies and occasionally means defensive physical violence against neo-Nazi threats. In this framework, far more energy is spent condemning liberals for tacitly supporting Nazism through their inaction than defining what “left” actually means (perhaps to be expected from a generation drawn to the left only recently after the failure of Hillary Clinton, who seemed to personify liberalism’s hypocrisies). Thus, as definitions are thin, the implied distinction between liberals and leftists is a difference in dedication and in tactics, not necessarily a difference in direction or principle.
The contrast between the committed antifascist left and the politically impotent liberal center has become a popular meme. Its popularity has also percolated upwards into the intellectual vanguard. Drexel’s George Ciccariello-Maher, one of the leading contemporary theorists in American communism, has established himself at the forefront of the antifa academics. He defends the “praxis of punching Nazis” from the “liberal theology of reason and non-violence.” He also argues that those sympathizing with fascists should not be given the right to freely spread their views, saying,
There are some arguments out there which I would understand to be free speech absolutist, that say free speech is a primary freedom and the left needs to first and foremost defend free speech. But the left has to first and foremost defend a program of progressive and radical transformation and change. Free speech and academic freedom are shields, and we need swords to move forward.
There is certain dialectic smoothness in juxtaposing the “far left” and “far right” as existential enemies locked in a struggle to the death – it makes intuitive sense. But in its commitment to that juxtaposition, the antifascist left from Dobbs through Ciccariello-Maher is guilty of what may prove fatal reductionism. In their search for a gratifying solution to disheartening crises of politics and democracy, the tradition of antifa have surrendered potentially powerful movements for an egalitarian future to the forces of reactionary authoritarianism.
How so? A cheap but telling example can be found in an irony common to both Dobbs’ and Ciccariello-Maher’s lived experience, separated by seven decades. Both figureheads were silenced at the most radical and essential moments in their respective careers by policies put in place to fight the right wing.
Dobbs, who rightly argued that American workers fighting in World War II would only strengthen capitalist control of a growing military industrial complex, was arrested and imprisoned in 1944 under the Smith Act, a 1940 law that outlawed “seditious speech.” The Smith Act, a bipartisan accomplishment supported by Franklin Roosevelt, was approved by the House of Representatives the day Hitler and his Vichy collaborators conquered France, riding a wave of popular hysteria that fascist sympathizers in the US would overthrow the American government if allowed to spread their ideology. Of the 215 people arrested before the Act was declared unconstitutional in 1957 (citing the Constitutional right to free speech, the same right Dobbs once derided as a trapping of “prissy liberals”), almost all were dedicated communists, anarchists, or labor unionists – only 26 were Nazi sympathizers.
Similarly, Ciccariello-Maher, who suggested students use the threat of violence to force their universities to block speeches by the pseudo-eugenicist Charles Murray, found his own freedom of expression totally curtailed by his institution. After the mass shooting in Las Vegas that killed 58, he offered the explanatory tweet “It’s the white supremacist patriarchy, stupid” (a fair point in that it highlights the race and gender of virtually all mass shooters, though it suggests ignorance of Marxist-feminist theory’s established nuances). Drexel promptly removed him from his classes and placed him on administrative leave. The University’s claim to have taken action for “the safety of Drexel’s community” echoes Ciccariello-Maher’s claims that some speech must be curtailed to protect marginalized communities. This hasn’t stopped the professor from entertainingly warning in the Washington Post that he plans to sue to “protect my academic freedom, tenure rights, and…the rights of my students to learn in a safe environment where threats don’t hold sway over intellectual debate.”
Humor aside, it is revealing that two Marxist vanguardists, both well versed in theory and celebrated leaders of their movements, could both be silenced so effectively by systems of power masquerading, like antifa, as pro-tolerance, pro-safety, and antifascist institutions. To avoid their trap, we must determine where philosophically the two thinkers, or the mainstream radical antifascist left more generally, have gone wrong.
The answer lies in the antifa’s relationship to liberalism – liberalism the hegemonic ideological force, as it has become in its shotgun marriage to global capitalism, and liberalism as the philosophical tradition that once brought Old Europe to its knees. In its reaction to the hideous threat of the far right, the radical left often sinks into a tragic contradiction – it attacks what is truly revolutionary and valuable in liberalism, while simultaneously ignoring the philosophy’s glaring failures.
The term “liberal” is a flexible and ubiquitous derogatory from the left, and it is not surprising that leftists from Dobbs to Lennard and Ciccariello-Maher have applied the label to those in the cultural mainstream who seem prone to fascist apologetics. Nor is it categorically incorrect. The right to freedom of speech that enables fascist sympathizers to legally demonstrate their views is a central principle of liberalism, first articulated in Milton’s Areopagitica in 1644. But a vast body of post-Enlightenment liberal theory seeks to limit free expression, starting with John Stuart Mill’s harm principle from On Liberty: that rights can be curtailed for “any member of a civilized community, against his will…to prevent harm to others.”
The problem with the harm principle, of course, is that it leaves the concept of “harm” undefined. Mill, who sought to establish a utilitarian liberalism – as if liberty itself has no utilitarian value – suggests harm can be “either physical or moral.” This then leaves the problem of defining a universally applicable morality, a task presumably left to prevailing hierarchical structures of power (incidentally, the remarkable scholarship of Domenico Losurdo unmasks Mill as a colonialist profiteer and racist, who called for liberty for Europeans and “despotism” for “barbarians”).
In fact, the right to free expression is completely without value if it is not completely universal. The right to advocate literally any viewpoint is unique among the classically liberal rights – it actually reflects some materialist critique of state power. Fighting for universal rights to expression is fighting against what Marxists writing 300 years after Milton would identify as hegemonic ideology. If there are parameters to free expression, however objective they may seem, these parameters are in fact dictated by capital and its interests. We see this play out in the cases of Dobbs and Ciccariello-Maher – as free speech is curtailed for seemingly progressive reasons, those actually silenced are critics of capital, critics of the status quo.
This is why modern liberal theory strains itself into unholy convolutions to justify restrictions on free expression. Austrian philosopher Karl Popper offered a most forceful defense of liberal democracy after the Third Reich annexed his country of origin. In his 1945 book The Open Society and Its Enemies he goes a step farther than Mill in defining “harm” as it applies to the great liberal panacea, tolerance:
If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them…We should therefore claim, in the name of tolerance, the right not to tolerate the intolerant.
Popper and his “paradox of tolerance” have seen a recent surge in popularity, spreading virally online after the alt-right’s murder of Heather Heyer at Charlottesville. His work is embraced by the antifascist intelligentsia (Ciccariello-Maher included, though the most celebratory left-Popperism comes from critical theorist Jacqueline Stevens, whose work is presented alongside his in 2011’s How Not To Be Governed), and he is frequently cited by Marxists (academic and otherwise) who would no sooner acknowledge their debt to a behemoth of liberal thought than they would admit to voting for Hillary Clinton.
But Popper was not just a behemoth of liberal thought, he was first and foremost a behemoth of reactionary thought. The Open Society and Its Enemies is a 750-page indictment of historicist theory, focused especially on debunking the Open Society’s most terrifying critic, Karl Marx. After the arrogance, the ignorant digressions (no, Hegel is not just “gibberish”), and the nauseating pretensions, Popper’s central argument is simple: Marx’s concept of history as class struggle is useless because it is unfalsifiable, and that in fact history is unpredictable. For this and very little else, Popper is celebrated by liberal institutions as having “disproven Marxism” and rendering historical analysis illegitimate (convenient for those benefiting from historic crimes). That Capital and the Grundrisse have accurately predicted every macroeconomic trend of the past 150 years is somehow hardly relevant.
Had Popper taken the time to understand Marx’s invaluable historical materialism, he would never have published such a preposterous thesis as “the paradox of tolerance.” Like all modern liberals who anoint themselves “social scientists,” he has exactly confused cause and effect. In the hypothetical world liberals imagine they inhabit, ideas spread organically and material conditions are shaped by the beliefs of subjects acting on their beliefs; in this nonexistent society, perhaps a case could be made for isolating hateful thought before it becomes hateful reality. But history tells us unequivocally that ideology is non-democratic, that beliefs are spread not by those who hold them but by structures of state power, that we are not subjects innately in control of our own agency.
True Marxists, students of historical movement and the structures that guide it, must then accept the following positions:
- That fascism is not the result of collective action by fascist sympathizers, but rather, fascist sympathizers are the result of capitalists manipulating ideology to protect their material interests.
- That individuals accept fascist narratives not because they hear fascists expressing their beliefs, but because the capitalist narratives of race, gender, and identity – established through socialization, education, and media exposure – establish a framework for hierarchy that is intrinsically fascist.
- That punching Nazis, curtailing Nazis’ freedom of expression, or even confronting Nazis in direct action groups like antifa does nothing to prevent the spread of fascism because they do nothing to address the cause of fascism.
In the face of the hideousness the alt-right represents, it is healthy and natural to want to do everything possible to lash out, to attack what is clearly hurtful and wrong. But if our goal is actually to prevent the most terrible possible expansion of oppressive violence, then we must take care to avoid this trap laid by state power. The underrated visionary of left communism, Amadeo Bordiga, who himself spent years imprisoned by Mussolini, maintained that “the worst product of fascism is antifascism.” He demanded an unconditional rejection of “facile criticism by all those elements…whose rule is to ignore all theoretical clarity and to get into bed with anybody, in any movement, on the basis of any program, as long as there is ‘action.’”
The “action” taken by antifa, while unquestionably well-intentioned, strengthens the status quo in the United States in significant ways. The most obvious of these is the legitimacy and platform it offers right-wing provocateurs. Blatant frauds like Tomi Lahren and Milo Yiannopoulos, despite a complete lack of academic or professional credentials, have become frequent guests on college campuses, simply because the threat of counter-protest offers student conservative groups visibility. But as prudent media critics observed, there was hardly any alt-right outside of the darkest corners of the internet until a violent confrontation between 10 neo-Nazis and antifa protesters in Sacramento last year. Similar incidents led to the creation of an intergenerational solidarity between the alt-right and the old right as major ideological dictators from the Washington Post to Fox News painted the entire anti-fascist movement as terroristic and illiberal. And as antifa rails against anti-authoritarian lifelines such as universal free speech (or more materially the ACLU), it becomes easier and easier for the general population to reject their entire platform of anti-fascism in good conscience.
This is problematic not just because of the alt-right itself, who despite their Presidential apologia remain leagues away from structural power in the United States. The ultimate effect of the symbiotic wrestle between the alt-right and antifa is spectacle. As long as the two minorities direct their revolutionary impulse at each other, rather than at actual institutions of power, neither will accomplish anything. Meanwhile, the vast majority of the American public, who consider ideology and political engagement taboo, will retreat from what seem like two sides of an extremist coin towards institutions of normalcy. And this normalcy (a dedication to consumerism, mainstream media, globalization, and social conformity – failing structures rejected at least nominally by both the left and the alt-right) ultimately means a mass societal march rightwards, a collective rededication to capitalism even in its endgame.
Throughout history, fascism has never been more than a capitalist project to neutralize the possibility of a leftist alternative. As the Trotskyist historian Daniel Guérin established as early as 1939, fascists could never have come to power without the direct support of capitalist empires, who aimed to use fascist “strongmen” to eliminate the Soviet-inspired revolutionaries in Germany, Spain and Italy. By now the 1935 US State Department telegram justifying economic support for Mussolini during his brutal invasion of Ethiopia is famous: he’s good for business, he jailed the communists, and “the trains run on time.” Less well known is the fact that Hitler kept a portrait of Henry Ford in his office and dotingly called the automobile kingpin “my inspiration” after Ford began investing in his labor camps. The first victims of every fascist regime were leftists and unionists, and the storied “Allies” tacitly endorsed their slaughter until Hitler’s conquering spree. Today’s alt-right is similarly indebted to big capital – Brietbart and its affiliated projects are tightly controlled by former Goldman Sachs banker Steve Bannon.
But capital’s relationship to the throngs of teenagers who consider themselves fascists is more complex, and even more causative. Angela Nagle, whose Kill All Normies is without a doubt the most in-depth and intellectually honest study of the alt-right, describes the movement as a reaction to “new problem of loneliness and atomization” caused by late capitalism. As children experience unprecedented performative socialization and academic labor in preparation for the vicious neoliberal workforce, there has been a well-documented surge in antipathy and depression. Added to that the profit-driven inundation of violent sexual imagery, racist tropes, socialization through corporate media, and utterly detached postmodern irony that is the internet under capitalism (as well as a mainstream online left Nagle criticizes as a “culture of fragility and victimhood mixed with a vicious culture of group attacks [and] group shaming”), and it is inevitable if not deliberate that a certain niche is drawn to a vision of politics that are hateful purely for the sake of hatefulness.
Should we be antifascists? Of course yes. But we must be antifascists consciously and consistently, which means under one key condition.
Firstly, we must establish what fascism truly is. College students with tiki torches chanting about an ethno-state are obviously nauseating. But never forget that the same night the alt-right murdered Heather Heyer in Charlottesville, seven people were murdered by an American airstrike in Somalia. Reacting to an inundation of disturbing media, many well-meaning leftists have begun to confuse the violence we can see (what Žižek calls “objective violence”) and the violence we take for granted, never even noticing (“systemic violence”). Fascism masks systemic violence with objective violence – Germans were proud to shatter windows and burn books, but when they were forced to tour the camps in their own country, they were horrified.
Fascism in the United States is not a looming threat posed by “teenage gamers, pseudonymous swastika-posting anime lovers, ironic South Park conservatives, anti-feminist pranksters, nerdish harassers, and meme-making trolls” (Nagle’s description). Fascism is already a day to day reality.
Fascism is the cultish veneration of military service that allows us to pour more money into weapons companies than the next seven most powerful countries combined, that justifies millions of murders as we loot poorer countries. Fascism is the world’s highest prison population (per capita or aggregate, it doesn’t matter), a racialized system of slave labor that will entrap 1 in 3 black American men alive today. Fascism is complete globalized surveillance overseen by secret courts. Fascism is the obsession with democracy even as the general public disapproves of every level of government policy. Fascism is a program of for-profit environmental destruction and disenfranchisement that kills more people every year than the entire Holocaust. Fascism is culturally reinforced isolation and hopelessness and the pandemic of sexual violence, drug abuse, and suicidality that come with it.
Fascism is every frame of the tightly controlled horror we are too busy goose-stepping to stop enacting.
After the Stalinist-liberal-anarchist alliance in Spain failed to block Francisco Franco and his junta from seizing control of the country, Trotsky wrote, “The worst and most reactionary form of utopianism is the idea that it is possible to struggle against fascism without overthrowing the capitalist economy.”
If we are serious about anti-fascism, if we are not resigned to a future in which the darkest possibilities of civilization are its only realities, this lofty goal must be ours as well. “By any means necessary,” cries antifa, and they are right – but it will take more than cathartically punching Richard Spencer to save us. Antifascism, by any means necessary – we must go farther than antifa in both directions. Embracing emancipatory violence, violence against every mechanism of capital, organized and democratized violence, violence as anti-violence, this will be necessary. But so too will be acknowledging our shared humanity, breaking through capital’s structures of alienation, reclaiming those who parody their own exploitation on the even less fortunate. We must engage fascism and capital with bottomless rage and bottomless love. What other means do we have left?