Neither Broken Nor Crushed
The “mask of the warrior” I wrote about in Strong Toward the Powerful is no longer hypothetical. All over the United States, people determined to resist the Trump regime and its fascist allies are masking up and taking to the streets.
The black mask of antifascism scares some people, but that doesn’t make it wrong. When you’re faced with a threat as serious as this one, there is no ethical option except to fight back. “Fighting” can mean many different things, and in any conflict throughout history most participants are not in frontline roles. This struggle needs everyone, not only those who are prepared to personally put a mask on and punch a Nazi leader in the face.
There are some highly effective and disruptive nonviolent tactics available for those who are simply unwilling to throw a punch no matter what. The heroic water protectors at Standing Rock have repeatedly put their own bodies on the line without harming their opponents. However, there is also a type of “pacifism” that is far less admirable, because it mostly consists of lecturing other protesters about nonviolence while refusing to take any risks or carry out any effective action at all.
In its most extreme form, pure pacifism is a false value system, a self-serving attempt to maintain one’s own moral purity even if it means allowing torture, murder and every other atrocity to go unchallenged. It is also extremely rare, because hardly anyone who claims to be a pacifist is truly a pacifist. Most of the liberals who condemn anti-fascist and Black Bloc activity and claim to support only non-violent methods are simply being hypocrites.
If you have supported any military intervention anywhere for any reason, you cannot call yourself a pacifist. (Not even if the president who sent the troops into battle was a Democrat!) Bombs, missiles and bullets do the same thing to human bodies no matter who pulls the trigger, pushes the button or gives the order.
If there are any circumstances under which you would call the police, you cannot call yourself a pacifist. The police carry batons, stun guns, pepper spray and firearms and they will use any or all of those on anyone who resists them. When you make the decision to call the police on a person, you are using violence or the threat of violence to achieve your objectives in the situation — even if those objectives are perfectly noble. Violence does not magically become less violent when you contract it out.
When people condemn “violent protests” but support the police and the military, they are not taking a pacifist position at all but an authoritarian one. Right now, as you read this, there are Antifa volunteers fighting with the YPG against Daesh in Syria. The YPG has American support, so they are widely seen as heroes of the “War on Terror.” When Antifa shuts down a Nazi rally here in the United States, our enemies on the Right denounce us as terrorists and some liberals go along with them. Antifa fights against fascists all over the world, the only difference between one situation and the other is that they have our government’s blessing in one case and not in the other. That is not a coherent moral stance. Simply put, the people complaining about Antifa have bought into the State’s claim to hold a monopoly on the use of violence. That’s all the State really is, after all — an armed organization that has successfully claimed a monopoly on violence within a certain territory.
The State has a vested interest in obscuring this fact, so it defines “terrorism” not as an attempt to terrorize but as any political violence carried out without government permission. When Al Qaeda blows up a wedding party with a suicide bomb, it’s committing terrorism. When the CIA does the exact same thing with a drone strike, it’s fighting terrorism.
Not surprisingly, anarchists do not consider this distinction to be legitimate. If violence is always unjustifiable it remains unjustifiable when committed by the agents of the State. If violence is sometimes necessary, it remains so regardless of whether the fighters are wearing the right uniform or not.
If pacifism is often an incoherent and hypocritical position, what about its opposite? Some people romanticize armed struggle without asking themselves how well it really works in practice or under what specific circumstances it would be justifiable or necessary. Anyone who has studied the history of armed struggle knows that it rarely achieves the intended results. Just because a tactic is more destructive does not mean it is more effective. It would be far better to never get involved in radical politics at all than to simply ruin lives and destroy things while leaving society as unjust and oppressive as you found it. My personal opinion is that people should only take up arms when they have no other choice. How do you know when you have no other choice? I can’t answer that riddle for anyone; it depends entirely on your real circumstances. Study the history of armed uprisings and you will not find yourself eager to try it if you don’t have to.
Among the anarchist philosophers, Godwin rejected revolutionary violence because coercion of any kind was against the principles he stood for. Bakunin embraced it, because he thought the oppressive power of the State could be broken only through a cataclysm. I don’t exactly take either position. When it comes to anarchism, I am content to spread my ideas by writing and talking about them, like Godwin. When it comes to resisting tyranny and fascism, I believe in fighting back. However, I don’t think that “fighting back” means nihilistic destruction. There’s a scene in the Tain where the hills and plains of Ulster literally turn gray from all the pulverized brains. I think we can all agree that this is not the outcome we’re going for! It’s not as simple as saying that you are either for violence or against it. When it comes to punching Nazis, I am for. When it comes to coating the landscape with random brains, I am definitely against.
Some fanatics on the Right — including Steve Bannon — have been fantasizing for years about an apocalyptic civil war to cleanse the nation of people like you and me. No individual person can have much effect on whether a civil war happens or not, but the fact that it’s even being talked about should terrify you. You could make a case that we should be getting ready for a worst-case scenario, but anyone who would try to make it happen is not your friend.
If you agree with my analysis, neither pure pacifism nor its opposite are justifiable positions. So where does that leave us? It leaves us with a nuanced position, in which we acknowledge that conflict is a reality while also respecting the sanctity of life.
That’s not an easy answer, because it doesn’t present a clear and unambiguous script for every situation. It leaves the moral complexity of conflict in place and forces you to make decisions contextually, based on what’s really happening in that moment. It requires you to do everything in your power to minimize harm—sometimes by not fighting, sometimes by fighting, and sometimes by choosing one tactic instead of another in the middle of a fight.
As it says in The Instructions of King Cormac:
If you are too hard, you will be broken
If you are too feeble, you will be crushed.
The bombers and bank robbers of the ‘70s were broken; Occupy was crushed. If we don’t want to be broken or crushed, we need to embrace the ambiguity of the situation and wage our struggle in a way that is neither too hard nor too feeble.
Christopher Scott Thompson
Christopher Scott Thompson became a pagan at age 12, inspired by books of mythology and the experience of homesteading in rural Maine. A devotee of the Celtic goddesses Brighid and Macha, Thompson has been active in the pagan and polytheist communities as an author, activist and founding member of Clann Bhride (The Children of Brighid). Thompson was active in Occupy Minnesota and is currently a member of the Workers’ Solidarity Alliance, an anarcho-syndicalist organization. He is also the founder of the Cateran Society, an organization that studies the historical martial art of the Highland broadsword.
Christopher Scott Thompson is the author of Pagan Anarchism, available from Gods&Radicals.