As the effects of the Great Recession linger, the ruling rich are making every effort to ensure that the working class bears the brunt of the economic crunch. In this atmosphere, elements of the extreme right feel emboldened to promote their reactionary wares. From the increasing visibility of right wing websites like breitbart.com, to well-publicized speaking tours by conservative ideologues like Milo Yiannopoulos and others, to former Breitbart editor Steve Bannon attaining the status of presidential advisor – the message from the top is clear: racism, sexism and xenophobia will all be used to divide and oppress the 99%. Meanwhile, these same poisonous sentiments are used to divert attention from those actually responsible for and benefiting from the current crisis.
It’s natural for any compassionate, thinking person to be angry at the notion of a Yiannopoulos, Bannon, Limbaugh, Beck, Hannity, Coulter, O’Reilly or Trump being given a prominent platform to promote their reactionary ideology. The question is: what should we do about it? What’s the best way to counter right wing propaganda? How can we most effectively shift the narrative from the phony answers offered by the right to the genuine solutions championed by the revolutionary left? How can we best ensure that the right wing talk doesn’t become right wing action? And critically, how can we best harness the power of the 99% – the working class majority – in this ideological, social and economic battle?
A look at recent events helps to illustrate what’s at stake.
On January 20, Milo Yiannopoulos was scheduled to speak before a sellout crowd of 700 at the University of Washington in Seattle. Outside, protesters gathered. Some in the crowd began throwing bricks, fireworks, paint and other objects. One protestor was shot by a Trump/ Yiannopoulos supporter. Despite the disturbance, Yiannopoulos’ was able to complete his talk.
On February 1, Yiannopoulos was scheduled to speak at the University of California, Berkeley. Some of the 1,500 protesters at the event threw rocks through campus windows, causing a generator to catch fire. University officials claim that $100,000 in damage was done. The police responded with rubber bullets and locked down the campus. The event was cancelled before Yiannopoulos could speak. Afterwards, some protestors smashed commercial storefront windows and car windshields and clashed with police. Later, Yiannopoulos was quoted as saying that “the left is absolutely terrified of free speech and will do literally anything to shut it down.”
On April 15, protesters clashed with participants at a pro-Trump rally at a park in Berkeley. Fireworks, bottles, trashcans and traffic cones were thrown. Eleven people were injured; seven were taken to the hospital. Police used pepper spray on the crowd.
In the aftermath of these events, dozens of mainstream as well as right wing outlets rushed to proclaim:
Berkeley riot lays bare liberal hypocrisy on free speech
Liberal Hypocrisy on Freedom of Speech BRUTALLY Exposed
The Imitation Game – How the Left is Silencing Free Speech
The hypocrisy of ‘love trumps hate’ liberals
Who’s Responsible for Violence?
The narrative that grew out these events was a gift to the right and corporate elites, making it easier for the powers that be to turn reality on its head.
It’s a fact that our society is characterized by rampant inequality, where wealth and power reside in the hands of a tiny minority. But such an imbalance is unnatural and can only be prolonged by the use of force. No privileged minority can maintain its rule over the majority without resorting to repression and violence. In a true democracy, with full respect for democratic rights and civil liberties, the majority would quickly unseat any dictatorial, exploitive, parasitic minority.
It is the 1% and defenders of minority rule who are responsible for violence and exploitation today. War, racism, sexism, mass incarceration, police brutality, austerity, destruction of the environment and attacks on civil liberties – all so characteristic of modern capitalism – benefit only those at the top.
Of course working people – the majority – have every right to defend ourselves from those who would use force to exploit us. But in the process, we should not carelessly hand propaganda victories to our enemy, muddying the waters as to who are the real perpetrators of violence.
Critical Gains for the Working Class
Free speech, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly and other civil liberties are vital, hard-fought gains for working people. Each of these rights is constantly under attack, though, to date, none have been decisively reversed.
It is easier for us to fight against the rule of the 1% with the tools of civil liberties in our arsenal. If we were forced to fight for fundamental change against an overt dictatorship – if we were compelled to function as an illegal, underground movement – our task would be immensely more difficult.
When we consider some of the basic basic civil liberties that are not guaranteed to Americans today – free, fair and unbiased elections; mass media immune from the influence of big money; the right to health care and family leave; the right to education; the right to form unions; the right to a job; the right to democratically control our workplaces and our economy – it’s easy to see how the lack of these rights hinders our ability to fight back.
By contrast, those in power today do not rely on civil liberties to maintain their rule. In fact, they readily flout the law when it suits them, and they steadfastly defend their perks and privileges whether or not they are strictly legal.
Thus, civil liberties are more important to the working majority than the ruling elites. When democratic rights are attacked, it is always the working class and progressive movements for social change that bear the brunt and suffer the most. For this reason, we must guard against giving the authorities any excuse to restrict our rights.
Our Rights Under Attack
There are many examples of the ruling elites trampling the democratic rights of the majority as a way of countering dissent and keeping us divided. For example:
+ For nearly a century, all labor unions were illegal in the US. From 1800 -1842, there were more than twenty indictments and prosecutions for “criminal conspiracy” related to attempts to unionize.
+ With the passage of the Espionage Act in 1917, opposition to WWI was criminalized. To speak against the war was “to interfere with the operation or success of the armed forces of the United States or to promote the success of its enemies.” Socialists and antiwar activists, like Eugene V. Debs, Kate Richards O’Hare and others, were imprisoned for insisting that, “the working class has no interest in the wars declared and waged by the ruling classes of the various countries upon one another for conquest and spoils.” With characteristic irony Debs noted, “…it is extremely dangerous to exercise the constitutional right of free speech in a country fighting to make democracy safe in the world.” In the Palmer Raids of 1919-1920, the US Attorney General sought to arrest and deport as many left-leaning radicals as possible.
+ Slavery was legal in the US until 1865. Blacks in America could not vote until 100 years after the country was founded. Discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, and national origin was legal until the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
+ Women were denied the right to vote until 1920. Young adults could not vote until 1971. Meanwhile, voting rights for African Americans and others are now under renewed attack.
+ In March of 1975, a professor at San Francisco State University invited a member of the neo-Nazi National Socialist White People’s Party to speak at his class. A small, group of ultra-left demonstrators forced the event to be cancelled. The majority of students on campus, while condemning the views of the neo-Nazi group, opposed the forced cancellation of the event, seeing it as the threat to free speech more generally. University officials used the ultra-left demonstration as a pretext to go after campus radicals and socialist groups, even attempting (unsuccessfully) to expel several from campus.
+ The right to speak in defense of Palestinian rights is under siege. Professors Norman Finkelstein (DePaul University) and Steven Salaita (University of IL) were denied faculty positions because of their support for the Palestinian struggle. The governor of NY issued an executive order prohibiting the state from doing business with any organization or company that supports the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS). On US college campus and in countries across the world, restrictions on the right to speak and organize for BDS are spreading.
+ Government attacks on WikiLeaks, Julian Assange and numerous whistleblowers pose a direct threat to free speech and freedom of the press.
Two Sides of the Same Coin
Liberal reformers have no faith in the ability of the working class to organize and change society. They erroneously believe that meaningful change can come through appealing to the better nature of the ruling elites. This is why they focus their efforts and energy on pleading with “friendly officials” to grant incremental reforms.
Frustrated radicals and ultra-left activists make a similar mistake. They too have given up on organizing masses of people. Instead, they substitute their own sensational, often violent confrontations for the mobilization of the 99% as a whole. Like liberals, ultra-left radicals hope to shock and shame the corporate establishment into making reforms.
But an effective movement is not one that is overly concerned with changing the minds of those at the top; it is one that reaches out to those at the bottom. The powers that be cannot be moved by moral or logical arguments because their rule is not based on morality or logic. It is based on economic and political power. For this reason, the aim of our actions must be to harness the countervailing power of millions of working people, and in so doing force a change of course, against the will those at the top.
With this clearly in mind, tactics can be chosen which will bring the maximum number of people into action.
A Winning Strategy
It is counterproductive to seek to prevent right-wing ideologues from speaking. In the first place, it is not their speech that is dangerous, but their policies and actions. In the second place, all of the right-wing talking points can be easily debunked by suitable arguments from the left. (Anyone who doubts this ought to carefully consider which side they’re on.) Thirdly, as pointed out above, history has shown that any restriction of free speech or other democratic rights rebounds most severely on the organizations and movements of the left.
However, right-wing propaganda does present a real threat that needs to be answered. What’s needed is a response that strengthens our hand, undermines the opposition, makes clear who’s responsible for systemic violence, and demonstrates which side has the majority.
The strategy that fits the bill is counter mobilization. Here’s how it works.
When a right wing speaker is invited to campus, student and community groups should unite in demanding that an opposing speaker representing a more radical left view be invited as well. Preferably, the entire event should be turned into a debate.
Wherever a right wing racist, misogynist or xenophobic speaker is given a platform, mass protests and pickets should be organized outside. The point is not to prevent people from attending or to prevent the speaker from being heard, but to ensure that the speaker’s viewpoint does not go unchallenged and to visibly demonstrate which side has the majority.
When right-wingers move into action, the left should build a bigger, broader counter-action. Right wing marches and pickets should be met with larger, broader counter marches and counter pickets. There’s no need to prevent the right-wingers from marching per se. Rather, the aim is to dwarf the impact of the right’s action with a suitable, massive counter action.
Where the right resorts to outright violence, the left should organize massive, community-based defense. Peaceful, left wing protesters also have the right to defend themselves if attacked by unhinged rightists. Because our strategy relies on mobilizing the majority, we have no interest in initiating violence, but this does not preclude our right to self-defense if attacked.
More of Us Then Them
In 1978 a group of about a dozen neo-Nazis marchers in Chicago were met by thousands of counter demonstrators, myself among them. After what had been a lengthy, controversial build-up, the right wing action was dwarfed by a united, progressive response. In the end, the Hitler wannabes made their speeches, but the broader relationship of forces was clear for all to see.
Yes, reactionary, right wing speakers must be challenged. But this is best achieved in a way that brings the largest possible number of people into struggle against their ideas and policies. Counter mobilizing does this, while at the same time defending important civil liberties that strengthen our hand. The counter mobilization strategy makes it crystal clear who represents the majority and exposes the ruling rich, their gendarmes and their right wing hangers-on as the ones responsible for initiating any violence.