Well, here we are. There are real live Nazis marching in streets, with torches and swastikas, terrorizing those who stand to oppose them. It’s the 1930s again, but this time in the USA. What do we do about it? This question has taken a greater urgency since this past weekend’s events in Berkeley, in which “antifa” counter-protesters mixed it up physically with “alt-right” protesters. Since then, there been a slew of headlines such as “Black-clad antifa members attack peaceful right-wing demonstrators in Berkeley” (WaPo), “Violence by far-left protesters in Berkeley sparks alarm” (LAT), “Yes, antifa is the moral equivalent of neo-Nazis” (WaPo), “ADL Tells Cops to Infiltrate Antifa” (The Forward), “The Antifa Protests are Helping Donald Trump” (New Yorker), and so on. The anarchist think-tank CrimethInc suggests the media reports are distorted, omitting provocation by the right-wing protesters that sparked the violence, while Mother Jones protests that the media have given undue coverage to the brief clashes, obscuring what was an overwhelmingly peaceful mobilization. Politico ominously reports that the FBI and Homeland Security are now refering to antifa as “terrorists.”
On the political left, at least, the debate is polarizing. A majority position holds that Nazis must be physically confronted on their own terms, to the ultimate consequences, and any talk of nonviolence or free speech is naive. This seems to be the emerging consensus of antifa.
A minority view calls for not confronting the Nazis directly, as violence only plays into their hands, abetting Trump’s moral equivalism and justifying police-state measures that will ultimately be used against us. This is the position of the Southern Poverty Law Center, which calls for holding anti-Nazi rallies away from the Nazis—which essentially means ceding control of public space to them. Worse still was Tina Fey’s hopefully facetious recommendation to stay home and eat cake instead of confronting them.
A smaller minority view calls for understanding that our adversaries are working-class white folk who have been fucked over by globalization and ultimately share the same oppressors we do. Proponents of this position call for reaching out to the Nazis through “dialogue” and even “debate.” Some put forth the “debate” option as a means of defeating their ideas, holding out hope that we can convert them.
I cannot go along with any of these positions.
No ‘dialogue’ or ‘debate’ with Nazis
I’ll address this last one first, as it is by far the most egregious.
There is indeed a place for dialogue, debate and even cooperation with elements of the grassroots right. I’ve worked in loose coalition around opposing the war on drugs and advocating cannabis legalization and other such issues with right-libertarians and self-identified “constitutionalists.” But not Nazis.
It is a fundamental principle that there are certain things you do not legitimize with debate, and if slavery and genocide do not fall into that category I don’t what the hell does. A minimum of common ground is the necessary prerequisite for dialogue. I have no common ground with people who want to exterminate me and most of my friends. Embracing these people with “dialogue” or “debate” automatically elevates their ideas to the realm of legitimate discourse. That line should never be crossed. Period.
Since Reconstruction, there has been a general consensus in this country that slavery was bad, and the root cause of the Civil War. Since World War II there has been a general consensus in this country that Nazis are bad. And since the civil rights era, there has been a general consensus that racism is bad (even if this consensus was partly based on denialism about the extent to which it still existed). The establishment of this basic social consensus was due to many years of hard struggle by progressives—from the Abolitionists to the “premature anti-fascists” to those who marched with MLK.
By embracing Nazis in “dialogue” or “debate,” we are already eroding that consensus, and betraying the work of all those who struggled and sacrificed to forge it. There can be no debate about genocide. What is there to discuss, whether Blacks and Jews should be exterminated or merely driven from the country? I’m supposed to sit down and talk with those who avowedly want to kill me and most of my friends? The fuck.
Talking or working with the grassroots right under any circumstances is a tricky proposition, and there has to be absolute clarity about our points of disagreement. But when real Nazis are in the streets with torches and Confederate flags, committing acts of terror—calling for “dialogue” or “debate” as a response is deluded, dangerous and ahistorical in the extreme.
We can at least discuss dialogue when they put down their torches, and show some recognition of our humanity. As long as they are in the streets spewing hate and threatening terror, there is only one appropriate response: opposition.
Tactical nonviolence: an impossible ideal?
This brings us to the other two positions, and the question of how we oppose them.
One of my Facebook friends who advocates “debate” has been invoking a particular Hannah Arendt quote, which is actually far more relevant to the question of opposition tactics. It concerns Danes under Nazi occupation who helped Jews escape to neutral Sweden. Their heroism apparently struck chords of humanity even among some of Denmark’s Nazi administrators, who sometimes engaged in “obvious sabotage of orders from Berlin,” leading Eichmann to admit that his plan for deportation of the Danish Jews had been a “failure.”
I do think—or, at least, want to believe—that nonviolence can be an astute and effective tactic, even against Nazis. Primarily, nonviolence serves the purpose of keeping us clearly on the moral high ground in the battle for public perception. Secondarily, it may serve to win the hearts (or weaken the will) of some of those on the Nazi side who still have a glimmer of human empathy.
But a few points need to be made here. The Danish resistance took place in the context of a genocide that was already underway. Many of the Germans swayed by their heroism to passive resistance were probably not exactly “Nazis” (as in Nazi Party members, ideologues), but just conscripts and cogs in the Nazi machine. It is a different situation when you are confronting fascists in the streets in the early phase of their rise to power (which is what we well could be looking at here). And certainly recognizing the effectiveness and heroism of Denmark’s nonviolent resistance is by no means to deny legitimacy to the armed partisans of the Warsaw ghetto, the French Resistance and so on. Some people did what they could. Others did what they had to.
And in any case, the Danish experience does absolutely nothing to legitimize the notion of “debate” with Nazis. Those committed to racial hatred have already abandoned reason, and therefore cannot be challenged on any rational basis. The Danish resistance succeeded in sparking noncooperation within the German ranks not by appealing to reason, but humanity. It’s also important to recognize that winning German hearts was not its aim. Saving Jews was. The resistance was not predicated on converting Nazis.
Some now arguing for meeting the Nazis on their own terms—physical force—seem insufficiently aware of the gains that tactical nonviolence won in the civil rights era. But it should also be pointed out that to some extent the civil rights movement ceded use of force to federal authorities—as when the National Guard was sent in to desegregate the schools in Alabama and Arkansas. Today the federal apparatus is under the control of our principal antagonist.
We can, however, hope that orders for repression will not be obeyed (just as the military brass may disobey orders to launch the nukes). The fear of defections within the ranks can be seen in the statements from the Joint Chiefs of Staff distancing themselves from Trump‘s racism. And this does again raise the question of tactical sophistication on our part.
So I am worried about notions of nonviolence and free speech being delegitimized. I’m critical of the tactics the Black Block used in Berkeley both this weekend and earlier this year. But I also believe that not one square inch of public space in the United States should be ceded to the Nazis to hold their hate-fests unopposed.
I also have little faith that a consensus for nonviolence can be reached, or that our contemporary culture encourages the self-discipline required for it to work. And there can’t be any confusion about which side we are on, in any case. One danger of advocating nonviolence is playing into the hands of the equivalists who blame both sides (or “many sides“) for the violence. On the other hand, the fact that equivalist propaganda will be used doesn’t give us a blank check to dismiss the whole discussion of astute tactics. It’s complicated.
I’m extremely heartened by what happened in Boston two weeks ago. The Nazis were massively outnumbered, and retreated. They were confronted directly, not in the cowardly or deluded way SPLC and Tina Fey advocate. There was no equivocation on opposing them outright, as beyond the limits of the acceptable for debate or dialogue. But neither was there violence. With both the numbers and moral high ground on our side, there didn’t have to be.
I hope to see more of this.