How We Fight
Cards on the table time: I am not a pacifist. I don’t believe that violence is never an option. I’m opposed to violence and cruelty on general principles, but I don’t think general principles really mean that much, especially when shit is starting to go down. I always reject aggressive violence, but I have zero problem with defensive violence. I think there is no comparison whatsoever between imperialist bloodshed and anti-imperialist bloodshed. I used to run with black blocs, and I have been involved in fairly intense antifascist violence. I was in Seattle in 1999, and my only regret is that we didn’t take out more symbols of international capitalism. I worship Martin Luther King, but in matters of violence, I am forever on the side of Brother Malcolm, who said it is criminal to teach a man not to defend himself when he is the constant victim of brutal attacks. And I never forget these words: Trionfano i profeti armati; i profeti non disarmati vanno in rovina.
Since the murder of a leftist by a white supremacist in Charlottesville, there have been many conversations about the role of antifascist resistance in our current climate, and, by extension, the part violence might play if things really get hairy. I don’t particularly care for revolutionary cosplay; I think if you’re serious about revolution, and have any historical perspective whatsoever, you owe yourself the intellectual honesty of deciding what your position on violent action is, and what you’re prepared to do about it. That said, I have no real dispute with my comrades who reject violence, either on practical terms or on philosophical ones. I just don’t care for the false narrative that often goes along with such purportedly principled stands. It is one thing to argue that violence is wrong, and quite another to argue that it is ineffective; it may be true that violence is not always the answer, but claiming that it is never the answer seems to me to betray a profound misunderstanding of the nature of political power.
This argument, always simmering with a low heat on the burner of leftism, has started to bubble up and spill over now that it’s becoming clear to even the centrist position that the hard right isn’t fucking around anymore. (It should have been clear decades and hundreds of bodies ago, but that’s another article.) No less grand a personage than Noam Chomsky recently weighed in, calling antifa a “gift to the right” and questioning not only its effectiveness but the optics of anti-fascist violence and the very ability of leftists to win against an armed and intransigent right. This itself has led to all sorts of sprawling debate in all corners of the left, with many, ironically, using Chomsky in an appeal to authority, as if we’d all elected him the Pope of Chili-Town when I wasn’t looking.
The question of violence is far too complex, difficult, and, yes, personal to settle in a single blog post. But I do want to address a handful of perennial arguments that I find deeply unsatisfying and would prefer not to hear again.
Behaving violently “gives the fascists what they want”.
I am bone-weary of this claim, which is also often deployed for less bloody tactics against the right. For one thing, since when do we let our enemies set the rules of engagement? The right won’t respect our playing nice with them, so why should I extend them the assumption of that courtesy? For another, here is what fascists want: They want to violently destroy their opposition and annihilate their enemies. That’s what they’ll try to do if we resist them, and that’s what they’ll definitely do if we don’t. So where’s the percentage in not fighting back?
In any confrontation between the right and the left, the left will lose, because the right is (better armed/tougher/more violent/more experienced).
This is not only bullshit essentialism, it’s defeatist nonsense. To begin with, recent history and ancient history alike shows us that rightists are frequently cowards and blowhards who deflate in the face of real opposition. You can’t convince me that the obese, pill-popping dullards and chinless incels of today’s alt-right are an unstoppable army of conquest just because their dads bought them a $1,200 AR-15 knockoff. Most of these clods have as much experience in actual combat as a tree squirrel. And if this is truly a concern, it has an easy solution: it is the duty of all leftists to learn to shoot.
Violence has never effected real change.
This is ahistorical in the extreme. It ignores the success of armed leftist revolutions taking place over hundreds of years on every continent. Even in celebrated cases of passive resistance such as MLK’s civil rights campaign and Gandhi’s peaceful struggle against British imperialism, there were elements of violent agitation present ranging from riots to revolutionaries. In neither case did the oppressors respond only to one side of the struggle.
Antifa are just a bunch of rich suburban white kids who only manage to put poor people of color in harm’s way.
This moral high-roading is very familiar to me, as I’ve been hearing it for about 30 years now. Regarding the demographics of anti-fascists, all I can say is that it certainly doesn’t ring true to my own experience in the movement, and it’s more than a bit insulting to claim that people of color never fight for their own protection or want anyone else to do it either. The community defense committees that I have worked with have different attitudes internally and externally about direct action, but what they have in common is that they all were started by and are led by people of color. As to the second point, I refer you to the above: fascists and racist cops are going to brutalize people of color in poor communities anyway. Isn’t it better to have someone there to mitigate the harm, provide some measure of protection, or at least try to fight back? If I’m going to take a beating — and I have — I want it to be worth the pain. To quote Malcolm again: “Be peaceful, be courteous, obey the law, and respect everyone. But if someone puts his hand on you, send him to the cemetery.”
It is no use being armed or learning to fight, because the right has power over the cops and the military, and they control weapons and technology against which we cannot possibly win.
This is, I have to say, the most compelling argument of the lot. No matter how well you can brawl or how sharp you can shoot, the military has arms so mind-bogglingly precise and destructive that they can annihilate you even before you know what’s happening. And this is by design! The unfathomable sinkhole that is military spending does two things: it burns up vast amounts of money, allowing the government to plead poverty on social improvements, and it strengthens the armed forces to a degree that any kind of real resistance becomes literally unthinkable. It’s a horrible problem. But I can at least respond with two points: one, Vietnam and Afghanistan are just two examples of how great military might, superior technology, and huge sums of wealth do not necessarily translate into victory. And two, if the cops and soldiers are really that powerful, it might be time to start getting them on our side.