Why it’s just bonkers to compare fascists to the activists trying to stop them
For my sins, I recently read the Washington Post essay by Marc Theissen, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. The essay is titled – ‘Yes, antifa is the moral equivalent of neo-Nazis’. Theissen wrote speeches for George W. Bush. His experience with anti-fascism appears to be negligible. He did, however, use his Washington Post column in 2015 to ask candidates in the US presidential election to stop calling Donald Trump a ‘fascist’ or to compare him to Hitler. And, Theissen did start his political career at the feet of Senator Jesse Helms, who was closely aligned with the variant of American fascism that opposed the civil rights movement. So this, now, is the person that the Washington Post turns to in its quest to disparage the upsurge against American fascism.
What got Theissen’s goat were the recent clashes in Berkeley, where some anti-fascists got into a fracas with the ‘peaceful protestors’ – as Theissen puts it – of the ‘No to Marxism in America’ rally. These ‘peaceful protestors’ include Kyle Chapman, a newly minted hero of the Bay Area fascists, who looked forward to coming for the Battle of Berkeley 3. He tweeted a video with the Imagine Dragon song, ‘We are the Warriors,’ with images from a previous encounter in Berkeley between neo-Nazis and white supremacists against anti-fascists and other anti-hate protestors.
Chapman’s evocation of a Battle of Berkeley 3 refers to two previous battles – on March 4 and April 15. A police officer – Darrin Rafferty – saw Chapman ‘swinging what appeared to be a wooden stick at many people.’ Chapman also sprayed pepper spray at those who objected to the pro-Trump rally on March 4. Before the April 15 rally, Chapman returned to Berkeley to video a message, ‘Most of the inhabitants of this city are a bunch of fucking cowards that couldn’t fight their way out of a paperbag.’ A judge at Chapman’s arraignment hearing said that he was not allowed to go to the ‘No Marxism’ rally.
The April 15 rally at Berkeley was a flashpoint. Neo-Nazi and white supremacist groups from across the American West and into western Canada streamed into Berkeley to make an example of this famously radical city. It was at this rally, with the Berkeley police deciding to stand down, that Nathan Domigo of Identity Evropa punched an antifa protestor in the face repeatedly. Identity Evropa considers itself a ‘generation of awakened Europeans who have discovered that we are part of the great peoples, history and civilization that flowed from the European continent.’ These are young people – Domigo is 30 – have reacted to multiculturalism and the demographic shifts in the United States with violent fantasies of European domination and purity. Alongside Identity Evropa were the Proud Boys, whose pride is equally fantastic since they see themselves as ‘Western chauvinists who refuse to apologize for creating the modern world.’ These are men who are angry at the idea that whites are neither dominant nor the master race. This is classic Nazi stuff with an impeccable lineage in the United States that goes back to Teddy Roosevelt and the Confederacy.
These are the ‘peaceful protestors’ that the Washington Post’s Thiessen and its reporter Kyle Swenson saw in Berkeley. The photo editor at the Post is clever. Thiessen’s article ran with a picture of an anti-fascist pushing a sign forward onto the body of a fascist who wore a t-shirt with a picture of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet. The picture of Pinochet is designed like the Obama t-shirts that have the word HOPE written below them. This one, of Pinochet, has the word HELICOPTER, an echo of the dictatorship’s practice of throwing left-wing activists out of helicopters into the Pacific Ocean. In 2001, the Chilean military finally admitted that in the darkest days of the Pinochet dictatorship they had thrown at least 120 people from helicopters to their death. Vivianna Diaz, president of the Family Members of the Detained and the Disappeared, said then that her father – Victor Días, a member of the Communist Party of Chile – had been thrown from a helicopter. ‘To discover that he in the depths of the ocean is terrible and distressing,’ she said. This is what the ‘peaceful protestor’ celebrated.
A debate, inevitable since the 1990s, has broken out in the intellectual corners of the left and of left-liberalism about the use of violence by the anti-fascists. Why must the black bloc use violence, it is said? The Boston protest – when thousands took to the streets against the neo-Nazis and white supremacists – so scared them that they cancelled dozens of their hate rallies across the United States. If such a vast peaceful movement can scare the fascists into their basements, then why bother with the violent confrontation on the streets? It is a fair question, but it is also utterly misplaced.
The American Left is weak to negligible. There are dozens of small left parties, but these are not able to amass significant numbers to break the momentum of the dangerous reappearance of the fascists. The left parties and their capacity to organize demonstrations certainly enable others to come to the streets to make a case for their more humane values. There would be no protests of the magnitude that fought the Muslim Ban or that build the Women’s March without elements of the left being involved as the backbone (it was once said that the Worker’s World party was a crucial travel agent for the anti-globalization mobilizations of the 1990s). But the left by itself can only gather a few hundred people to each of these demonstrations, and the party left (communists, socialists) does not have the apparatus to seriously defend themselves from fascist attack. That kind of training, which is so central to the left in other parts of the world, is just not there.
There is a sober history here. When the fascists made themselves known in Germany in the early 1920s, the German Communist Party created a front of Red Fighters (Roter Frontkämpferbund) in 1924 to confront these fascists on the streets. It was these working-class activists who used their muscle to clear the streets in the early years. Four years into their existence, the Red Fighters included close to 70,000 members – most of them unaffiliated to the Communist Party. But the Nazis and the liberals colluded to complain about the ‘violence’ of the Red Fighters, making sure to ban them in 1932. Hitler came to power in 1933. The first people to be arrested by the new regime were the Red Fighters, many of whom went to concentration camps to be executed. Among them was their leader Ernst Thälmann, the head of the Communist Party and the Red Front, who was arrested in 1933, sent to solitary confinement for eleven years and then shot on Hitler’s orders in Buchenwald in 1944.
Small bands of antifa protesters have formed around anarchist ideas in the United States for decades, being integral part of the anti-globalization protests of the 1990s. They are not controlled by any party and few of the small groups are in organizational contact with others. It is a sign of the weakness of the left and the absence of something like the Red Fighters that the antifa of today in the United States exists. To make outlandish and outsize comments about its tactics is to misidentify antifa. It is not a movement or a party. It is a symptom of the growth of fascism and the lack of a working-class alternative. Without that mass alternative to fascism, antifa plays a crucial role. To call for the disbanding of antifa is ridiculous because it is not going to do so – it exists in a space that demands its presence.
The leadership of American trade unions seems uncomfortable with the present. They have been willing to meet with Trump and – until recently – sit at the table of his manufacturing council. This collusion bewilders the rank and file.
Theissen and those who attack antifa do not recognize that below the AFL-CIO leadership there are unions that replicate in all measure the view of antifa and its belligerence. On August 17, in anticipation of the violence in Berkeley, Local 10 of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union passed a ‘Motion to Stop the Fascists in San Francisco.’ The members voted to condemn Donald Trump’s ‘whitewashing’ of the ‘deadly fascist and racist attack’ in Charlottesville, when he said that both sides were to blame.’ They found it disgraceful that the president attacks ‘anti-racists for opposing Confederate statues that honor slavery.’ This, they argued, ‘adds fuel to the racist violence.’ The dockworkers accused the neo-Nazis and the Patriot Prayer group of incitement to violence. ‘Far from a matter of free speech,’ the racist and fascist provocations are a deadly menace, as shown in Portland on May 26 when a Nazi murdered two men and almost killed a third for defending two young African-American women he was menacing.’ This is powerful language. And it is not only from one of the most radical unions in the United States.
The day before the dockworkers put out their statement, Waylon Hedegaard, the head of the North Dakota AFL-CIO reflected on a protest he attended against the Nazis in Leith. ‘Our union sisters and brothers need to remember that Organized Labor was the first item on Hitler’s enemies list,’ Hedegaard said. ‘Though working people certainly have legitimate issues, white supremacy, Fascism and Nazism have never had the answers,’ he pointed out. In search of the unities of socialism, Hedegaard noted, ‘The source of working people’s issues are not people of a different color, gender, religion or belief. This has never been true and remains a lie today. Working people’s problems come from an unfair economic system that increasingly takes money and power from them to benefit the wealthy and powerful.’
The real discussion that needs to happen is how to build outwards from the kind of sentiment heard in these union halls, how to build an American Left that can forthrightly combat the fascists not only on the streets but in terms of ideology. The fascists prey on feelings of hopelessness and inject anger into the vulnerable. Theirs is an ideology of death. It is rightly to be condemned. But it has nothing to do with anti-fascism, which is merely a defensive posture as the American Left tries to recreate a platform to appeal for an alternative future.