In recent weeks, I’ve authored numerous pieces discussing Antifa and its rise to prominence. The first piece was a plea for non-violent resistance to fascism, which covered the dangers of aggressive violence and how it provides the state with a justification for suppressing left protest. The second piece addressed the failure of Antifa to develop a mass support base due to its preoccupation with fetishized violence over a commitment to movement building and articulating a positive vision for social change.
One of the primary online Antifa organs, Itsgoingdown.org, printed a response from “Riseup.net,” a Seattle-based anarchist organization. The group describes itself as committed to “human liberation” and “the fight for freedom and the self-determination of all oppressed groups” and as opposing “all forms of prejudice, authoritarianism, and vanguardism.” Riseup states: “Our purpose is to aid in the creation of a free society, a world with freedom from want and freedom of expression, a world without oppression or hierarchy, where power is shared equally. We do this by providing communication and computer resources to allies engaged in struggles against capitalism and other forms of oppression.”
Upon encouragement of fellow progressives, I am responding to the main points in the Riseup piece, titled “Eternal Liberal Handwringing: Response to Antifa Smears.” I hesitate to refer to this essay as part of a dialectic in the Hegelian or Marxian sense. I believe that would require an open exchange of ideas, and that’s not possible when Antifa supporters refuse to grant their critics the basic respect of identifying who they are. So long as Antifa hides behind the protection of anonymity, it’s difficult for a meaningful dialogue to take place. If one has something important to say, it should be communicated in the public sphere, not via quasi-privatized discourse that shields only one side from accountability.
The “You’re Just a Liberal” Line
One claim made by Riseup against Antifa critics is that they’re “status quo” apologists, intent on “smearing” Antifa. Riseup refers to my criticisms of Antifa as “a quintessential example of liberal hand-wringing and vapidity.” But ad hominem attacks and efforts to frame substantive criticisms of Antifa as “smears” make it difficult to engage in a serious conversation about the group. Yes, I’m strongly critical of aggressive violence, but I also recognize positive elements of Antifa’s agenda. This should be clear when I write that Antifa’s “opposition to fascism is a valiant goal,” that Antifa “offers a principled stand against fascism,” and that I “respect the commitment” of Antifa “to protecting the lives of others.” Instead of taking arguments out of context, Riseup should engage with the substantive claims of Antifa’s critics.
Holier than thou attacks on fellow leftists are highly inappropriate – especially when used to discredit “liberal” authors writing for radical outlets such as Monthly Review, Counterpunch, Truthout, and Z Magazine/Z Net. Anyone who thinks these outlets are “liberal” hasn’t been paying attention to left media. These outlets, and my writings at Counterpunch, focus on numerous themes, including principled opposition to militant nationalism, imperialism, and war, support for revolutionary cultural and economic change away from capitalism and toward socialism, rejection of the propaganda and distortions endemic in “mainstream” media discourse and official rhetoric, and a general contempt for the bi-partisan neoliberal political system in the United States. These positions are hardly the stuff of milquetoast liberalism. And anyone who conflates radical criticisms of American politics and society with the liberal politics of the New York Times, MSNBC, and CNN isn’t engaged in a serious analysis.
The “you’re just a liberal and that’s bad” line on the far-left is a shop-worn cliché, and it suggests a failure of left radicals to cultivate mass support for change. It reveals how off the mark those who engage in such condemnations are regarding larger efforts at mass movement building. “The left” of contemporary 2017 America is deeply divided and fractured, and it is a shadow of its former self, considering the decline of organized labor, and the disappearance of left-public intellectuals in higher education. In this environment, what remains of “the left” desperately needs to reach out to the masses of Americans, including liberals, moderates, and political independents, and to pull them further to the left, if there is to be any chance of meaningful change. And berating anyone who is not perceived to be on the far left, rather than patiently working to bring these individuals into a broader left movement, is a recipe for irrelevance. No substantive political change will ever be achieved with small groups of vanguard leftists shouting in condemnation against those who are not hardcore enough in their politics.
Faux Revolutionary Politics
Riseup worries that critics of Antifa have “made a monolith of Antifa and have simplified their actions to black-bloc-ing and street fighting Nazis. We exercise our political agency in so many more ways! In this moment, anti-fascists are providing hurricane relief in Texas right now. We’re also on the border helping refugees survive their long journey north. Building community infrastructure outside the state, prisoner support, permaculture gardens and the list goes on. Antifa is a facet of a larger struggle that we engage in myriad ways.”
I appreciate the reference to Antifa activities outside of aggressive violence. It suggests that many, probably most of those who support the group, are driven by noble intentions, and many are engaging in positive actions to make this country a better place. If these were the actions that primarily defined Antifa, I’d have little reason to criticize the group. But many are now speaking up, not because of the group’s community building actions, but because of the concern Antifa is playing into the hands of right-wing reactionaries, militants, and law enforcement who are set on suppressing violent protest on the left.
It’s a false dichotomy to frame Antifa supporters as revolutionaries and their critics as tepid liberals who are too feeble to push for radical change. Antifa has no monopoly over radicalism. Many on the left came of age reading the works of radical historical thinkers such as Mikhail Bakunin, Karl Marx, Antonio Gramsci, Eugene Debs, and contemporary radicals such as Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn. But I see little of the insights from these thinkers embraced by Antifa, which prioritizes opposition to fascism over efforts to cultivate mass support for radical change. For a group claiming to support revolution, there seems to be little understanding among many supporters I’ve spoken with and followed regarding how this is to be achieved. One need look no further than Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin for a serious discussion of the conditions necessary for revolutionary transformation. As a revolutionary advocate of participatory unionism and libertarian socialism, Bakunin was clear in his writings that revolution would only be achieved under specific preconditions. These included: 1. A serious effort on the part of leftists to cultivate mass support for socialism. This required a mass outreach campaign, and the development of mass critical consciousness in demand of social change; and 2. Growing economic desperation on the part of the masses, which would create the conditions necessary for an urgent push for a system-wide transformation via the destruction of capitalist systems that had lost the support of the mass public.
Bakunin was clear that a mass critical consciousness must precede revolutionary change. Individuals might become disenchanted with corporate capitalism during times of crisis, but that didn’t mean this would result in positive change if the masses had not contemplated what they wanted in place of capitalism. More specifically, Bakunin wrote:
“in order to touch the heart and gain the confidence, the assent, the adhesion, and the co-operation of the illiterate legions of the proletariat – and the vast majority of proletarians unfortunately still belong in this category – it is necessary to begin to speak to those workers not of the general sufferings of the international proletariat as a whole but of their particular, daily, altogether private misfortunes. It is necessary to speak to them of their own trade and the conditions of their work in the specific locality where they live; of the harsh conditions and long hours of their daily work, of the small pay, the meanness of their employer, the high cost of living, and how impossible it is for them properly to support and bring up a family.”
The fact of the matter is that Antifa hasn’t engaged in effective public outreach. It’s main priority lies elsewhere, specifically in violent confrontations with conservatives, fascists, and other critics. Rather than cultivating mass support, Antifa’s violence has alienated its supporters from the public. As I mentioned in a previous piece, the “movement” is supported by only a tiny sliver of the mass public -just 5 percent – and even within this group, the vast majority of “supporters” are unwilling to take to the streets to actively working toward Antifa’s mission of destroying fascism through violence.
Bakunin also wrote about the economic conditions under which a radical democratic revolution would be built. Regarding the problem of personal insecurity, he wrote:
“when a man can be driven to desperation, he is then more likely to rebel. Despair is a bitter, passionate feeling capable of rousing men from their semiconscious resignation if they already have an idea of a more desirable situation, even without much hope of achieving it. But it is impossible to remain too long in a state of absolute despair: one must give in, die, or do something about it – fight for a case, but what cause? Obviously, to free oneself, to fight for a better life…But poverty and desperation are still not sufficient to generate the Social Revolution. They may be able to call forth intermittent local rebellions, but not great and widespread mass uprisings. To do this it is indispensable that the people be inspired by a universal ideal…When this idea and this popular faith are joined to the kind of misery that leads to desperation, then the Social Revolution is near and inevitable and no force on earth will be able to resist it.”
Bakunin’s insights are relevant to a discussion of Antifa’s contemporary “revolutionary” politics, which at this point are anything but. Obviously, the material conditions of desperation have not yet manifested themselves in the case of the United States, which despite record inequality, the rise of a repressive police state, and the decline of democracy, is nowhere near the sort of desperation fitting Bakunin’s precondition for revolutionary change. Antifa can be classified, under Bakunin’s framework, as an example of “intermittent local rebellion,” rather than as a force leading a “widespread mass uprising.” And without any serious or sustained effort to reach out to the increasingly insecure segment of the workforce that has suffered for decades under neoliberalism, there is no reason to think that Antifa will be part of “the solution” in fighting for revolutionary change. When Antifa begins to organize Wal-Mart and McDonalds employees in favor of re-unionization, participatory economic democracy, and worker ownership of industry, a discussion can be entertained about the group’s revolutionary value to the left.
On Anonymous Resistance
Riseup.net appears to believe that anonymity in activism is to be idealized over public activism (the group’s leadership is entirely anonymous). This preference for anonymity is reflected in their statement: “From those who have a vulnerable citizenship status, parolees, and people on probation, or the line cook who lied to her boss to get of work so she could attend a protest, some people simply have too much to lose. Some stand to lose everything should they be identified in a protest. Migrants, prisoners, workers and the marginalized are people we want and need for a mass movement so we can’t tell some people that they have to be completely transparent. These are the people we’re fighting for.”
It’s strange as a social scientist to be lectured about the importance of anonymity as a protective device to help the disadvantaged. Social scientists have long accepted the position that vulnerable populations deserve protection via anonymity. The commitment to shielding those we study is structured into our research, and protected via “institutional review boards” that create countless fail-safes to protect the identity and interests of those with whom we engage in our research. Recognizing that disadvantaged groups must be protected is a separate point from saying that an entire group of people should receive a blank check to engage in violence indiscriminately against those – including liberals, reporters, and fellow protesters – who oppose their methods, as happened in Berkeley.
Furthermore, the polling that has been done thus far reveals that Antifa supporters are no worse off economically than the rest of the public. The group and its members do not benefit from some special status compared to the rest of the public, that qualifies them alone for anonymity. It is unethical to hide behind societal disadvantage as a justification for committing violence, especially in instances when that violence is not even committed against the proposed target of fascists. And this justification opens up dangerous possibilities moving forward. Should anonymity also protect any other group that engages in political violence, so long as they claim to be acting in the public good? This Pandora’s box position cannot be taken seriously. It provides a carte blanche authority and impunity to any extremist group interested in using political violence in pursuit of social change.
Public accountability is necessary for any movement that speaks in favor of democracy. Proponents of civil disobedience like Gandhi and MLK understood that mass movement building required the willingness to endure the punishments that came along with radical resistance, even in cases where those being punished were disadvantaged groups. The very public struggle of these groups is what helped civil rights activists and nationalists fighting for independence from British colonial rule build mass sympathy and support for change.
No one who claims to fight for social justice can be above accepting the costs and consequences of their actions. Public intellectuals have a responsibility to stand up and be counted for their views. And that means embracing the good and enduring the bad that come along with being a public figure. And there are costs to bare. For example, radical scholars face the very real risk of being blacklisted from jobs in social science fields, which are dominated by establishment thinking. But there’s little hope of building a mass left movement without visible figures who are willing to stand up publicly in defense of their values.
The Question of Violence
Riseup’s response to critics is to claim that talk of non-violence in the face of state repression is meaningless, since left activists have been promoting non-violence for a long time, despite their failure to achieve revolutionary change. It’s hard to deny that the U.S. is nowhere near achieving revolutionary transformation. But to depict change as all-or-nothing is to cheapen the many victories of progressive social movements over the decades. Progress in the struggles for civil rights, gay and lesbian rights, and women’s rights, are hardly minor achievements, even if they aren’t revolutionary in nature. These successes indisputably improved democratic representation in the U.S., and society is far better off because of them.
Riseup speaks of their critics as embracing non-violence. This is true to an extent, in that many on the left reject the tactics of those engaging in aggressive violence. But this doesn’t mean that all critics of Antifa are pacifists. I’ve argued that violence is acceptable in cases when a person or group is defending themselves from imminent bodily harm or death. Violence may become necessary under other situations involving human health, security, and safety. For example, the food riots that occurred across major American cities during the Depression were violent, but they were a necessary response to a political-economic system that could no longer provide for even the most basic needs of the populace. If the choice is between violence and starvation, that’s no choice at all. During the Depression, Americans workers earned sub-poverty wages prior to the establishment of union protections and a minimum wage. In such conditions of desperation, those who took to the picket lines were assaulted by private security, local police, and national guard forces. But these acts were in self-defense against police violence, and were committed against an economic system that produced mass unemployment, homelessness, and threatened the ability of the poor to survive.
All this is quite different than the acts of aggressive violence undertaken by Antifa activists. The case of Berkley is instructive in this regard. Eyewitness reporting notes that Antifa activists attacked not only far-right protesters, but also reporters who sought to document the event, or other left leaning protesters who criticized their methods. There is nothing constructive that can come out of such authoritarian vigilantism, and I have no interest in defending these actions any more than I would hooligans acting out in a drunken bar room brawl. I don’t mean to paint all Antifa violence with this brush. When Cornel West tells Americans he was saved from white supremacists by Antifa protesters, I’m inclined to believe him, and I recognize the value in collective self-defense. But that is quite different from random, indiscriminate violence in pursuit of some “revolution” for which Antifa has done little to cultivate mass support.
In its expose on Antifa, the New York Times reported that “its more recent history has roots in the straight-edge punk rock music scene, the anti-globalization protests of the 1990s, and the Occupy Wall Street movement.” The reference to the punk rock subculture is revealing for someone who spent years in this underground scene during the 1990s and early 2000s. The indy punk rock scene was dominated by the kind of holier than thou politics that many Antifa members seem to embrace. The indy punk community long fetishized the use of violence at shows, in the name of “letting off steam,” allowing for expressions of macho militancy and violence against others, and as a manifestation of personal expression and (alleged) artistic creativity. The problem is that these expressions of paternalism and violence were toxic to the community, and eventually drove many people away. Juvenile cathartic violence produced short-term satisfaction for some, while quickly alienating others, who had better things to do than getting beaten up at shows. Nothing good came of any of this violence, in hindsight. And Antifa’s commitment to fetishized and cathartic violence will have a similar impact – alienating the many in favor of indulging the few.