In Defense of Defense
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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