A Few Things About Nonviolence: A Response to Yoav Litvin

Yoav Litvin’s recent column, To Punch or Not to Punch – The American Left’s Existential Crisis, about nonviolence is a deeply mistaken and rather insulting piece of writing. His understanding of nonviolence is ahistorical and decontextualized. What he calls ‘nonviolence’ is not nonviolence, it is the liberal media’s false projection of nonviolence that has been created in the 50 years since the death of Martin Luther King, Jr. to function as a soft-power ideological state apparatus.

This is not exactly surprising, since the 2016 election it has become very obvious just how many self-described Leftists have almost zero grasp of history or revolutionary theory. This is to be attributed to a fast food style of politics that has taken hold of Leftist minds, many activated by recent events are looking to get a revolutionary movement in a Happy Meal box with batteries included and no assembly required. The post-political ennui of Occupy has unfortunately taken a turn towards intellectual dearth in some sectors and reveals at times a deeply mistaken understanding of American radical history.

In its most clear and present form, this logic manifests itself in the more hyperbolic and self-aggrandizing rhetoric about AntiFa. This ‘movement’ (and I hesitate to elevate a tactic above that lest it serve the purposes of right wing media) tries to say that it has an antecedent in the postwar militias that helped hunt down fugitive Nazis in Germany. The only problem with such an analogy comes from the fact that those AntiFa militias were aligned with the state, serving as a type of posse comitatus that was informally deputized by the Soviet, American, French, and British armed forces occupying Germany. Last time I checked no AntiFa group has been deputized by the police and, in fact, those who participate in these actions have an adversarial view of the police. One need not be Foucault to point out such a profound logical shortcoming regarding power relations.

Yet more important is the fact that there are many tactical mistakes that are stemming from this logic. The first and most obvious is simple, Leftists have a very good habit of participating in trial runs of their own executions. In 1941, the Communist Party USA wholeheartedly endorsed and supported the prosecution of a political party that Stalin said was part of an international movement of fascist collaboration. This international political current was engaged in banditry in Spain, had fomented an attempted coup in Russia, and was said to be enthusiastic about the Hitlerite barbarians. Of course if you ask Michael Hudson, he will rebut these accusations wholeheartedly and say that neither his father nor the rest of the leadership of the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party, prosecuted under the Smith Act, were anything but opponents of Stalinism. Regardless, the SWP members did a stint in jail and the same legal strategy was rolled out against the CPUSA from 1949-58. The coordinates of this matter are simple, the state will always use the violence against Leftists which the same Leftists previously used against their opponents.

The second is one recently raised in an essay by Noel Ignatiev on the Hard Crackers blog (http://www.hardcrackers.com/rainbow-coalition-class-war/). The goal of a true movement opposing American fascism should not be adrenaline-boosting brawls, it can only be the long and dedicated work of dismantling various engines of white supremacy within our socio-political landscape. Punching a vile thug is easy. Getting rid of the undeniably racist Common Core curriculum and standardized testing regimen that is being used to privatize infrastructure and re-segregate public schools is a whole different ball of wax. Furthermore, Ignatiev points out in his essay another historical precedent to be aware of. Unless a movement is openly challenging white supremacist structures with a full throat, they will always end up turning to the right. He goes as far as asking about labor organizing and whether one should take the ‘a rising tide lifts all boats’ approach to economic inequality:

Doesn’t it make more sense to focus on the grievances they have in common, their common subordination to the banks, railroads and corrupt public officials? The answer is, no, it does not. History shows it does not. This sort of false unity always leaves the black worker on the bottom. It is black and white together on the picket line, and after the strike is over the white workers return to the skilled trades, the machining departments and the cleaner assembly areas, and the black workers return to the labor gang, the coke plant and the open hearth. Every “victory” of this kind feeds the poison of white supremacy and pushes further off the real unity of the working class.

As just a mild addendum, I will point to the recent Sanders campaign for the presidency, which took the ‘rising tide’ approach. When Sanders was defeated on Super Tuesday in 2016, a vile backlash ensued because the states that voted on that day, majority Southern and Black, tilted the scales beyond repair in favor of Clinton. The caterwauling of members of his base, screaming “don’t they know how good his policies would be for them?,” reeked of the condescending paternalism found in the Confederate apologist historians from a century prior.

And so one is compelled to a simple query, does punching a self-described Nazi dismantle the apparatuses that uphold white supremacy? Clearly the answer is no and, playing devil’s advocate here, one is forced to ask if this sort of thing might increase police repression against those who are on the front lines of attacks by the police. When one takes up a defensive act against a thug to protect the innocent, that is a totally different matter. Under the law, defense of another individual subjected to assault and/or battery is granted the same legal status of self defense. But the logic of guilt-by-association combined with the targeting of a multicultural Left equals probable cause in the minds of the urban police. (Of course the very vanilla flavoring of AntiFa is a matter I have no brief on.)

So what exactly is nonviolence?

We need to go back to the early days of the socialist movement to properly grasp this. The anarchist movement was one that had a huge variety of philosophies and ideologies, from individualist to structuralist, atheist to religious, and violent to nonviolent. Tolstoy was a proponent of a kind of Christian anarchism that argued for nonviolence. Later Gandhi read these writings and corresponded with the author of War and Peace. What Gandhi did is very important to grasp here. He was no friend of those who shy away from the attacker. Instead, Gandhi proposed an inversion, a truly dialectical antithesis, of the ‘propaganda of the deed.’ Whereas anarchists were demonized in the press as bomb throwers, Gandhi flips this logic on its head and says one must throw themselves on the bomb. Norman Finkelstein explained this in an interview with Democracy Now on 6/5/12:

You know, personally, I’m a person of the left, have always been, and always railing against the capitalist system, the unfairness of the distribution of wealth and so forth. When I started to hear about these folks in Zuccotti Park [at Occupy Wall Street], it resonated for me. But then I heard they’re camping there. I said, “All right, Norm, you’re heading toward 60. You’re not going to Woodstock. You’re past your prime. This is not for you.” And so, I just was an observer, a sympathetic observer, but an observer. And then, when I heard about—I’m from Brooklyn, New York, and I heard 800 people were arrested on the Brooklyn Bridge. I said, “OK, Norm, it’s time to do something.” Now, nobody had to tell me the system was wrong. What people had to do was quicken my conscience to act. And that’s what Gandhian nonviolence is all about, getting people to make the kinds of personal sacrifices which will force the bystanders to say, “OK, I really have to do something now. If they do it, why aren’t I doing it?” And that’s what Gandhianism was about. But also, as I said, you have to enter a thousand caveats, qualifications, about his commitment to nonviolence, because it was not nonviolence that for him was the ultimate sin. Actually, I’ve read through about half of his—as I said, half of his collected works. He uses—I know it’s a paradox—he uses the most violent language, not against those who commit violence. Actually, he says he was an admirer of Sparta, because he admired the courage of the warrior. And he always used military metaphors. It was “the army of the nonviolent.” He was “the general.” He always used martial metaphors. But he said—as I said, he reserved his most violent language for cowards. He literally says they don’t deserve to live. A coward does not have a right to live. [Emphasis added]

Furthermore, Gandhi was very clear that repelling an attack, defending oneself, is not breaking with his nonviolent views. Finkelstein said in another interview:

Gandhi made the point, when you have a huge discrepancy in power, then when a weak party resists, it’s not violence. He gives a few examples. He says, take the case of a woman who resists a rapist by scratching the rapist and hitting the rapist. He says that’s not violence; that’s just a woman trying to summon up the internal moral courage to die. That’s with dignity. With dignity. And then he says in 1939, you have the German Wehrmacht, the Army, the Luftwaffe (the air force), they invade Poland. Poland has six tanks. Poland resists. They use violence, they use their tanks. Gandhi says they had that right because it was such a huge discrepancy in power. He says it wasn’t resistance; it was dying with dignity. You’re just trying to summon up the moral wherewithal to die with dignity. [Emphasis added]

Now let me speak from my own experience. At the end of June I engaged in nonviolent civil disobedience by locking myself to a chair in the lobby of Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse’s Providence office. His staffers were begging me to leave and they would not raise any stink. Even the Providence Police were asking me ‘Is it really worth it?’

Well, considering it was to make Sen. Whitehouse put a parallel to HR 676, the single payer healthcare bill, onto the floor of the Senate, I would say so. After being asked multiple times if I knew what was going on, they finally arrested me, cuffed me, processed me, and put me in a cell overnight in Providence.

As we were waiting at the elevator, I was a bit jittery and one of the cops said ‘Hey, it’s okay.’

But he didn’t realize that I was overjoyed as opposed to scared. Every second of that night in a cell with a cast iron bed that had no blankets or cushions was worth it, as was the processing and court dates and everything else leading up to today stemming from it.


Simply put, I got everything that I wanted. Now everyone on earth can say Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse would rather have a constituent spend a night in jail rather than give that constituent the sense of security that will only come from having a healthcare system that works for everyone.

Does anyone think I would have gotten that by punching the Senator or bombing his office? In my statement I sent via email to everyone I could think of, I worked as hard as I could to center the conversation on women of color in Providence, who are the ultimate and most seriously hurt victims of a for-profit healthcare system. If I need to spend a night in lockup in Providence to help end that misery, I’d do it again.

We live in an epoch where nonviolence as a tactic is the only one available to us because of state repression and because that is what the public finds acceptable. Going too far outside the margins invites ridicule or dismissal.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is a great example –if– you know what you are talking about. For instance, he had armed guards around him quite often in marches, they merely concealed their weapons. His nonviolence refused to lecture the rebellious in Watts or Detroit because it was cruel to do so. But he knew what he needed to do to get results and it was because he was effective that he was murdered.

Let’s be absolutely clear about that. He forced the New Dealer Lyndon Johnson to destroy the old New Deal coalition and therefore his Great Society programs so to pass the Voting and Civil Rights Acts. As soon as those laws were passed, the Solidly Democratic South flipped to the Republicans overnight. What’s more, that year they did not go for a normal Republican akin to Rockefeller or Romney, they went to the anti-Keynesian anti-Welfare state Barry Goldwater! King was moving mountains and no one could deny it. And as soon as he spoke about Vietnam, the state removed King’s FBI detail, which was the best kind of interstate death warrant you could get at that time.

By contrast, very few people are talking these days about Bernadine Dorn and the Weather Underground. I doubt a typical man on the streets knows who Leon Czolgosz was.

Andrew Stewart is a documentary film maker and reporter who lives outside Providence.  His film, AARON BRIGGS AND THE HMS GASPEE, about the historical role of Brown University in the slave trade, is available for purchase on Amazon Instant Video or on DVD.