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In Defense of Defense

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“Zona Antifa” graffiti. Credit: Wikimedia Commons


This week, Chris Hedges quoted an article of mine. He argued that anti-fascist and Black Bloc demonstrators “mirror [the alt-right] not only ideologically but also physically—armed and dressed in black, the color of fascism and the color of death.” Counterposing base-building and antifa, he reduced the latter to “extremists” getting “infected with the dark, adrenaline-driven urge for confrontation that arises among the disenfranchised when a democracy ceases to function.”

Now, Hedges’ article is absurd and offensive, coming only days after neo-Nazis murdered an anti-fascist in Charlottesville. His position does not perceptibly differ from Donald Trump’s (despite hedging that “[t]here is no moral equivalency between antifa and the alt-right” in a piece otherwise dedicated to saying that there is). However, the spuriousness of Hedges’ particular argument doesn’t mean there isn’t a stronger case for his position. The Left must engage with it. Do Black Blocs try to cut off fascism at the stem in a way that makes it harder to pull up the root? Does diverting activist-hours towards fighting openly-proclaimed racism distract us from white supremacy’s more normalized, but more pervasive faces?

Is antifa just toxic, hypermasculine catharsis? Does it hamper actual institution-building?


On Inauguration Day, the University of Washington’s College Republicans booked Milo Yiannopoulos to speak. The thousands-strong counter-inaugural march began in downtown Seattle. Before it reached campus, the anti-Yiannopoulos protesters were severely outnumbered by the combined forces of unsympathetic cops and fedora-wearing rightists. Liberal friends on the scene texted me – people who’d only ever had contempt for “brick-throwers” said how thankful they were for the Black Bloc of a couple dozen. The “masked extremists” had placed themselves between the right-wingers and everyone else, physically shielding them from fascist violence.

That night, a Trump supporter shot an anti-fascist in the stomach. Of those present with whom I’ve spoken, not one has doubted that without the Bloc’s buffer, the alt-right’s violence would have been far worse.


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Antifa demonstrators. Credit: Wikimedia Commons


Is antifa destructive? It can be. Activist subcultures are no less self-focused, exclusionary, and elitist than any other middle-class-controlled subculture. Accepting that insularity, not struggling against it, is incompatible with building an independent base of mass power. Leftism is pointless if it just means talking to each other about each other. And developing an autonomous network of working-class institutions, separate from and opposed to capitalism and its government, needs to be our strategy. “Making your voice heard” and “starting a tough but important conversation” are what you do when you’re breaking up with someone, not when you’re cultivating collective power. We should be creating the embryo of socialism within capitalism itself, not bearing passive moral witness.

I’ve seen Black Blocs done horribly: no goals, no focus, no planning, and no connection to any larger community. They let their participants feel cool and accomplished nothing else.

But Hedges and similar antifa critics miss the larger context: literally every tactic, from union drives to mutual aid programs, can be done counter-productively. Singling out antifa just betrays their discomfort with the idea that the oppressed don’t actually need the capitalist state to defend ourselves.


The anti-fascists, and then, crucial, the anarchists … saved our lives, actually. We would have been completely crushed, and I’ll never forget that.

Cornel West


I am a pastor in Charlottesville, and antifa saved my life twice on Saturday. Indeed, they saved many lives from psychological and physical violence—I believe the body count could have been much worse, as hard as that is to believe. Thankfully, we had robust community defense standing up to white supremacist violence this past weekend.

Rev. Seth Wispelwey


I live in a city with a large and lively protest scene. The police department’s repressiveness is regionally infamous. At virtually every major protest – Black Lives Matter, May Day, anti-fascist, whatever else – riot police show up spoiling for a fight. Typically, they deploy pepper spray, flashbang grenades, and rubber bullets. Most demonstrations are explicitly advertised as “peaceful.” When violence breaks out, it’s usually one-sided: police hurting protesters. Never once have I seen the violence initiated by anyone besides a fascist or a cop.

Most big protests attract at least a small Black Bloc. They rarely pick fights. Instead, they act as a de facto collective bodyguard: by placing their bodies in front of the police and/or fascists, they take flashbang burns and Proud Boy punches so others don’t have to. Black Bloc, in practice, is usually a defensive tactic. The debate around whether “violently confronting fascism” is effective and/or justified usually elides this. Do anti-fascist protests often get violent? Sure. But the antifa aren’t striking first. Without them, it would be everyone else getting the stuffing kicked out of them – not just those who choose to mask up and accept the risk.

Should antifa use violence to proactively deny fascists’ free speech? How many angels can dance on the head of a pin? On the ground, fascists (and their police enablers) are not restricting themselves to rhetorical violence. Even a counter-protest that scrupulously avoids preventing fascist speech (rather than simply expressing opposition) will find itself on the receiving end of the alt-right’s very literal violence. Blanket denunciations of antifa smell suspiciously like victim-blaming. How can our protests avoid violence when it’s the other side that attacks?

Antifa done right saves lives.

It saved Cornel West and other religious pacifists in Charlottesville. White nationalists have shown us their willingness to kill. Do “progressive” commentators have any business pearl-clutching about the optics?

But there’s still a larger critique. Tactical specifics aside, is directly confronting fascists effective? Does it alienate potential supporters? How does it get us closer to socialism?


Hoping and praying for things to work themselves out for the better won’t work. Efforts at trying to isolate yourself, your family, and your community and shield it from the repression that is coming won’t work. Trump and the reactionary forces that he embodies and represents must be defeated, politically, socially, and economically. Solidarity and joint struggle are our greatest forms of both offensive and defensive resistance. But, the solidarity must be practical, programmatic, and visionary.

To defeat Trump and the neo-Confederates we have to develop a strategic “Build and Fight; Fight and Build” program. This program must address the imperative need to build economic and political power from the ground up – amongst workers, the underemployed, unemployed and structurally unemployable on the community, county, state and national levels.

Both dimensions of our Build and Fight program we believe must have offensive and defensive dimensions to them. What follows are some preliminary thoughts on what we believe must be built and/or strengthened going forward, to not only survive the Trumpocalype, but to build the world we and our children and great grandchildren need.

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The Dual Power revolutionary strategy rests on two pillars: construction and confrontation.* Each contributes to the same larger goal: an infrastructure of participatory-democratic institutions capable of replacing capitalism. Construction can mean mutual aid programs, worker co-ops, collectively-owned democratic housing, or other projects to satisfy the material and social needs of a community. Confrontation, conversely, can involve workplace organizing or tenants unions – or community self-defense. It obstructs, resists, and subverts an oppressor. That self-defense might oppose hate violence (for instance, Seattle’s Q-Patrol). It could focus on police brutality (as with the Black Panthers). And sometimes, it’s against the extreme right.

We must directly confront fascist events. That confrontation should not be done by isolated, subculture-oriented affinity groups looking for catharsis. Instead, Black Bloc tactics and less pugnacious ones can reinforce each other if done within the context of broader coalition work. That’s the model developed by the IWW General Defense Committee. It works.

In 2015, alt-rightists connected to Richard Spencer and Andrew Anglin (of the Daily Stormer blog) organized a doxxing campaign against Jewish residents of Whitefish, Montana. It escalated to a planned “day of action,” for which neo-Nazis would bus into Whitefish. When antifa-oriented leftists and less-militant civic groups collaborated to prepare an on-the-ground response, the entire fascist effort was aborted due to the opposition they knew they’d face. That coalition emerged from years of base-building by anti-fascists within Whitefish. As Shane Burley reported:

The adaptation the community made to the racist threat presents lessons for the ongoing confrontation with the white nationalism. The base building had been done not for months, but years, and the slow process helped to further radicalize a town that could barely pass an anti-hate resolution a couple of years before. Likewise, with two different approaches to the issue, with the softer community organizing from Love Lives Here on the one side and the direct confrontation presented by Antifa on the other, can have a synthesis. Without the long-term community engagement presented by the Montana Human Rights Network, there wouldn’t be a broadly unified community to resist the invasion, and without organizations willing to confront the protest directly, it could have still taken place.


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Bessemer converter used in steel production. Credit: Wikimedia Commons


But how does that fit into the larger socialist strategy of institution-building? After all, the Left wants more than to merely frustrate the far right. We have even bigger enemies and a much bigger goal. Even if antifa constitutes legitimate political confrontation, isn’t positive construction more important?

Construction and confrontation need each other. The tension between them is creative, and in order for the Dual Power strategy to work, each of them has to be shaping and supporting the other. In Marxist lingo, they form a dialectic.

Sure, confrontation without construction ends up with self-isolating, patriarchal, adventuristic catharsis politics. But construction without confrontation gets you apolitical charity that can’t challenge oppression (and doesn’t want to, anyway).

If you have both, though, then construction meets people’s needs and helps them survive. That boosts their capacity to engage in confrontation by freeing up time and energy. Plus, it brings credibility to advocates of confrontation – radical rhetoric is nothing next to learning through practice that revolutionary politics feeds your kids. Confrontation then helps prevent those programs from being destroyed or co-opted. It also removes exclusionary barriers that prevent more extensive construction. Through confrontation, a network of people developed through construction learns to trust and rely on each other. Finally, those united through confrontation can be solidified into a lasting group through construction – pushing past a singular event into a durable institution of collective power. Confrontation and construction each create the conditions for the other to expand.

To make steel, you combine pig iron and oxygen. You can’t build much with either ingredient alone, but when brought together correctly? Something very strong comes out. Construction and confrontation depend on each other the same way. It’s true that if your radicalism begins and ends with confrontation, you’ve missed the point. But when a liberal like Chris Hedges dismisses confrontation out of hand, he isn’t providing a necessary corrective. He’s just claiming you can make steel out of nothing but air.


*Equivalent language includes “build and fight,” “alternative institutions and counter-institutions,” “base-building and mass mobilization,” “constructive program and obstructive program,” and the slogan “fight the power, serve the people.”


Sophia Burns is a communist and devotional polytheist in the US Pacific Northwest. Support her via Patreon.


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13 Comments »

  1. What a beautiful piece! I have argued this point with actual dozens of peaceful liberals (let me tell you how being a white-haired Granny advocating violence adds to the point 🙂 If fascist violence isn’t answered with anti fa violence then it’s just liberal protesters getting beat up……..and that’s not newsworthy or a deterrent. Honour to them!

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    • Had Antifa NOT participated in the violence, it would have been clear to the US public that the police are biased and the right-wing is the violent and guilty party—which would have been a good place to build an argument and position from. Unfortunately, the adolescent emotionalism of a vast majority of the Left muddies the waters to a point where nothing is now clear.

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  2. While I think there definitely are some worthwhile critiques to be made of Antifa, the one presented by this Chris Hedges fellow isn’t interesting enough to warrant any serious attention. By the sounds of it, he’s just some sanctimonious liberal peacenik who’s up on his moral high horse about the evils of “violence” in general. Heard it all before, don’t really care. I think there’s a far more productive critique to be made of Antifa from the perspective that it’s just one particular example of the predictable patterns that the left-anarchist subculture has fallen into. Such a critique isn’t “singling out Antifa” so much as using it for demonstrative purposes in an effort to shed light on the broader problem of subcultural insularity – a problem that the author of this article readily acknowledges only to fall back into worn-out platitudes about “mass power” and “working class” identity politics.

    The failure of the Left is due precisely to it’s obsessive fixation on “the Mass” at the expense of flesh-and-blood individuals and the expansion of their autonomy. Critiquing the idea of subcultural insularity without critiquing the idea of “the Collective” as a reified social body is a surefire recipe for continuing to chase your own tails trying to figure out why your purportedly “revolutionary movement” can never meet with any broader success beyond the occasional piecemeal victory of protecting someone from getting beaten up by fascists (which, don’t get me wrong, is a worthwhile thing as far as it goes). Whether you’re talking about “the Masses,” “the Working Class,” “the Movement,” or any other homogenizing collective identity, it is this very logic that keeps radically-minded individuals contained within predictable and controllable methods of resistance – not to mention within the subcultural “activist bubble” that so many anarchists have fallen into.

    The major problem with groups such as Antifa isn’t so much their use of violence as it is a tendency among their participants to adopt the Antifa banner as a sort of default position. The same thing could just as easily be said about groups like Food Not Bombs, Critical Mass, the Radical Cheerleaders, or any number of other “anarchist franchises” that seem to dominate people’s time and energy in the North American left-anarchist subculture. As is so often the case with “activism” in general, the tendency among radicals to fall into these prefabricated niche activities usually stems from a perceived sense of obligation to “just do something” rather than stop to reflect on the How and the Why of what you’re doing. If Antifa’s use of violence can be critiqued in any way whatsoever, it is not because of the bare fact that they use violence but, perhaps to some extent, the hastiness to which (which and the manner in which) they default to violence in some cases.

    But the main substance of the present critique isn’t really even about Antifa’s use of violence so much as the broader subcultural environment in which they operate. Not having been in Charlottesville, I’m not really in a position to comment on the specific tactics that were used, but I have little doubt that there would have been multiple instances in which putting the boots to those white supremacist swine would have been a perfectly reasonable course of action.

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  3. the crux of the argument here is weak: “literally every tactic, from union drives to mutual aid programs, can be done counter-productivelly”. but burns never engages that ethical question of violence itself in any form. the essay implicitly assumes there can be productive violence “if done right.” not only is it circular but its a straw man since hedges isnt basing his argument fundamentally on the question of efficacy.

    violence is the problem.

    Liked by 1 person

    • As far as I’m concerned, the discussion of the ethical implications of violence is largely a distraction from the need to take a critical look at the subcultural bubble that left-wing social movements have built up around themselves. Antifa could forsake violence completely in favour of putting on bake sales and it would do nothing whatsoever to address this broader reality.

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      • Who cares? Well that was a silly rebuttal. In case you haven’t noticed, the mainstream press serves the interests of the corporate state which can shut Antifa down at any instant it likes. However, I suspect they find Antifa useful for now. What are YOUR priorities? They’re not apparent.

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  4. Not to mention that to create a “false equivalence” between Hedge’s position and Trump’s is mindbogglingly lacking in perception. Or a useful distortion. Hedges is NO Liberal. Apparently, the aspiring radical commenters on this thread don’t remember the Occupy Movement, or weren’t there; and you certainly didn’t tell the full truth about the Berkeley Yiannopoulos event, Sophia. But you’ve maintained your cachet and inner-circle cool, which is what you were courageous enough to forgo the first time. And let’s not forget… As much as we all love Dr. West (and we do)… it’s HE who is the hypocritical pacifist liberal who supports the vicious warmonger and corporate Democratic shill Sanders. Oh yeah… That’s a quite a bit of innocent Arab and Russian and Iranian and Syrian and Yemeni and, generally, Middle Eastern and brown people’s blood on his hands. 😉

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  5. Speaking of “larger contexts…” Antifa is already playing into the hands the unconstitutional Department of Homeland Security’s worst intentions. Antifa has already been demonized for mass public consumption by our phony “liberal” East Coast press, including the warmongering New York Times and the Bezos-beholden Washington Post. How is this supposed to help the Left?

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    • Who cares? Let the press demonize whoever it wants to. Anyone who views radical social change as a PR campaign needs to reexamine their priorities.

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    • ====================

      “In case you haven’t noticed, the mainstream press serves the interests of the corporate state…”

      The “mainstream” press as opposed to what? The “alternative” press? If the alternative press posed a threat to the “corporate state,” it would have done it ages ago. A fundamental flaw with the whole idea of “movement-building” is the belief that, if you just sway “Public Opinion” in your favour, then you attain a “critical mass” of people motivated to take action against whatever happens to be your pet issue at a given time. However, this belief ignores the fact that the “Public/Private” dichotomy is itself an ideological construction designed to maintain the fragmentation of daily life into clearly delineated “spheres” of activity. This notion of “the Public” as a unified “mass” of individuals waiting to be shaped and molded into the service of a particular ideology is precisely what keeps global capitalism up and running, not what challenges it very foundations. The only thing that “alternative media” accomplishes is the addition of yet another commodified image of dissent into an already over-saturated marketplace of ideas.

      ====================

      “…which can shut Antifa down at any instant it likes.”

      So let them shut it down. If that’s what it takes to get the participants of Antifa to question the predictable patterns that they’ve fallen into, then maybe it’s for the best.

      ====================

      “What are YOUR priorities? They’re not apparent.”

      I think my priorities have been quite clearly stated. I am focused on expanding a critique of “mass movements” in general and the tendency toward subcultural insularity and collectivist groupthink to which they give rise. If resistance to global capitalism and coercive authority is to have any sort of future, then those who engage in such resistance need to stop thinking in terms of rousing “the Masses” from their slumber start looking toward themselves and their immediate interpersonal relationships as a basis from which to transform the world.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. The reason you’re partially incorrect about the “alternative press”; and, here, I’m not speaking of the pseudo-quasi-alternative press, but since the Internet has been around (it hasn’t been “ages”), how can you (we) in any way deny that information is a useful thing? True, you’re right about the vast majority of the public, their capacity to even know where to look for reliable sources, let alone know what to do with them, let alone having the inner ethical compass or drive or clarity to whip up their inner desire for revolutionary change. I’m not conjecturing that “the masses” are suddenly going to rise in huge numbers to make any difference. In the US, it’ll never happen at this late stage, except out of desperation. But you haven’t proposed anything as a possible solution, or trajectory, which we (with our “immediate interpersonal relationships”) should even take other than to looking with fresh and open eyes. You’re dealing in concepts and vague projections (to what end?), as opposed to some workable action that might make a difference beginning now. Yes, while we hope to educate the Left (it seems) over a long arc of ever-growing knowledge, in the meantime the police state is tightening its grip at a pace that outstrips any “progress” we’re hoping for. Indeed, you (we) sound a bit like a liberal progressive in our revolutionary ambitions. Fluffy phrases such as “transform the world” are a long way away from what we should be addressing here and now. That doesn’t imply a misdirected use of inconsequential force such as that employed by Antifa. But I do suggest that (along with reflecting deeply—yes, I agree with you on this) the time is now to be very shrewd and skillful on all fronts (not ridiculously loose and scattered so as to expend all of one’s potential like Antifa has done.

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