The Historical Naiveté of Antifa


From the Washington Post this morning:

Their faces hidden behind black bandannas and hoodies, about 100 anarchists and antifa— “anti-fascist” — members barreled into a protest Sunday afternoon in Berkeley’s Martin Luther King Jr. Civic Center Park.

Jumping over plastic and concrete barriers, the group melted into a larger crowd of around 2,000 that had marched peacefully throughout the sunny afternoon for a “Rally Against Hate” gathering.

Shortly after, violence began to flare. A pepper-spray-wielding Trump supporter was smacked to the ground with homemade shields. Another was attacked by five black-clad antifa members, each windmilling kicks and punches into a man desperately trying to protect himself. A conservative group leader retreated for safety behind a line of riot police as marchers chucked water bottles, shot off pepper spray and screamed, “Fascist go home!”

All told, the Associated Press reported at least five individuals were attacked. An AP reporter witnessed the assaults. Berkeley Police’s Lt. Joe Okies told The Washington Post the rally resulted in “13 arrests on a range of charges including assault with a deadly weapon, obstructing a police officer, and various Berkeley municipal code violations.”

And although the anti-hate and left-wing protesters largely drowned out the smaller clutch of far-right marchers attending a planned “No to Marxism in America” rally, Sunday’s confrontation marked another street brawl between opposing ends of the political spectrum — violence that has become a regular feature of the Trump years and gives signs of spiraling upward, particularly in the wake of the violence in Charlottesville.

“I applaud the more than 7,000 people who came out today to peacefully oppose bigotry, hatred and racism that we saw on display in Charlottesville,” Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguín said in a statement. ” … However, the violence that small group of protesters engaged in against residents and the police, including throwing smoke bombs, is unacceptable. Fighting hate with hate does not work and only makes each side more entrenched in their ideological camps.”

As a Christian, it ought to go without saying that this kind of proactive violence is out of the question. You don’t even have to be a Christian pacifist to see that. Some leftist Christians on Twitter were defending these actions today, as if people following the Prince of Peace can engage in this kind of behavior.

But in a pluralistic society it is not enough to yell, “Jesus says no!” We have to provide compelling reasons to abstain from violence. Many civil rights activists of the 1960s provided both moral and pragmatic reasons for pursuing nonviolence. Had the civil rights mainstream used a strategy of violence in the 1960s, the decade would have been far bloodier, and the backlash would have been even worse. I can’t imagine a scenario in which that ends well for freedom-loving people.

But Antifa looks to a different historical period for its lessons. It draws strength from a misunderstanding of 20th century European history. The idea is that fascists employing violence and intimidation came out on the streets of Germany, Italy, and Spain, and not enough people stood up to them. I’m rather ignorant on the subject of Weimar Germany, but after reading Richard J. Evans’ books, my sense is that the lesson Antifa has taken from the rise of fascism in the 1930s is precisely backwards.

Historian Laurie Marhoefer explains:

Charlottesville was right out of the Nazi playbook. In the 1920s, the Nazi Party was just one political party among many in a democratic system, running for seats in Germany’s Parliament. For most of that time, it was a small, marginal group. In 1933, riding a wave of popular support, it seized power and set up a dictatorship. The rest is well-known.

It was in 1927, while still on the political fringes, that the Nazi Party scheduled a rally in a decidedly hostile location – the Berlin district of Wedding. Wedding was so left-of-center that the neighborhood had the nickname “Red Wedding,” red being the color of the Communist Party. The Nazis often held rallies right where their enemies lived, to provoke them.

The people of Wedding were determined to fight back against fascism in their neighborhood. On the day of the rally, hundreds of Nazis descended on Wedding. Hundreds of their opponents showed up too, organized by the local Communist Party. The antifascists tried to disrupt the rally, heckling the speakers. Nazi thugs retaliated. There was a massive brawl. Almost 100 people were injured.

I imagine the people of Wedding felt they had won that day. They had courageously sent a message: Fascism was not welcome.

But historians believe events like the rally in Wedding helped the Nazis build a dictatorship. Yes, the brawl got them media attention. But what was far, far more important was how it fed an escalating spiral of street violence. That violence helped the fascists enormously.

Violent confrontations with antifascists gave the Nazis a chance to paint themselves as the victims of a pugnacious, lawless left. They seized it.

It worked. We know now that many Germans supported the fascists because they were terrified of leftist violence in the streets. Germans opened their morning newspapers and saw reports of clashes like the one in Wedding. It looked like a bloody tide of civil war was rising in their cities. Voters and opposition politicians alike came to believe the government needed special police powers to stop violent leftists. Dictatorship grew attractive. The fact that the Nazis themselves were fomenting the violence didn’t seem to matter.

One of Hitler’s biggest steps to dictatorial power was to gain emergency police powers, which he claimed he needed to suppress leftist violence.

Read the whole thing. Marhoefer goes on to explain that there is a lot of evidence that violence in the streets increases support for right-wing authoritarian solutions. If leftists can’t be persuaded on the grounds of morality to forswear violence, perhaps they can be persuaded on the grounds of pragmatism. Violence in this moment is counterproductive.

Street violence as strategy in 2017 reflects a misreading of both past and present. Historians study change over time and historical context. When we think in these terms, we begin to realize how different Weimar Germany was from the contemporary United States. What interwar Europe needed was not more leftists on the street ready to meet violence with violence; it needed stronger political institutions and better economic policies. Despite the danger of our current president, the American political system is far more stable than was the Weimar Republic, and the economy is much stronger. Fascists may always be scary, but the contexts in which they operate–1920s Germany and 2017 U.S.—could hardly be more different.

When leftists and anarchists act as though a few dozen hateful people marching on American streets is a portent of fascist takeover, their overreaction makes that end more likely. Street violence bends the debate toward the most basic and emotive concerns: the safety and security of our bodies. When those are the terms of the debate, the far-right wins. When citizens fear for their bodily safety, their support for an open and free society decreases.

Antifa’s historical narrative is the flip-side of the neo-conservative foreign policy lesson from Nazi Germany: every crisis is another Munich in the making, so it’s better to bomb first and aim later, lest we appease the next Hitler. But just as the next Hitler doesn’t actually come along too often, genocidal fascism with the power to command popular support doesn’t come along very often either. We tend overlearn the so-called lessons of unusual historical events. Rather than providing simple precedents that we can map onto present circumstances, these events actually present us with thousands of variables different from our own time.

None of this is to say that violence doesn’t work. It definitely does in certain circumstances. It would be strange for an American to insist that violence never works. It’s what birthed the country. Antifa punctures the wishful thinking of many liberals who blandly insist that “violence isn’t the answer” even as militarized violence or the threat of it is the basis of American foreign policy. (Though, the failure of American foreign policy ought to tell us something about the efficacy of violence too).

Some leftists believe that the liberal aversion to violence reflects disregard for marginalized people most threatened by resurgent white supremacists. It’s true, my own position makes it easy to be complacent. But we must not assume that to reject violence is to reject resistance. Indeed, nonviolent resistance demands more of us than does violent resistance. If I’m wiling to kill for a cause, my dedication may be little more than self-preservation dressed up in heroic pretensions. If I’m willing to die for a cause, I’ve moved to a more meaningful and productive posture to support and defend oppressed people.

Nonviolence is a strategy better-suited for the moment in which we find ourselves. After two centuries of oppressed people working to make the United States a more perfect union, we really do have something to lose if everything were to come crashing down. Of course, this is precisely what the anarchists deny. Their assumption that what comes after the burning-down is better than what we have now is morally reckless and historically naive.

I saw this crystallized in 2014 as I followed the Ferguson protests on twitter. I watched as white anarchists descended on the city, stirred up violence, and then left local black activists to deal with the consequences. The black activists tended to have a more nuanced understanding of their circumstances. Rejecting the reckless stories anarchists tell, the tradition of nonviolent black protest has maintained multiple truths in creative tension. It recognizes that America is a place of inexcusable injustice that must be rectified; it also recognizes that America is a place built by black hands, a place worth improving rather than tearing down. And it recognizes that nonviolence is the tool of those who seek to build and improve, while violence is the tool of those seeking to destroy.

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