Surprisingly many people seem to think that anti-fascists are just as bad as the fascists they oppose. (According to one rather unreliable source even Chomsky recently made critical comments about “Antifa”.) One would think that even a little bit of historical knowledge would prevent such strange ideas, but apparently this isn’t the case.
Criticism of the anti-fascists and their tactics comes in – roughly – two kinds. One kind argues that violent tactics are bad because of their bad consequences. The other kind of argument appeals to (implicit) principles rather than to consequences. This short essay discusses – and rejects – both kinds of arguments. Because the second kind of arguments appears to constitute a more fundamental kind of critique, those will be addressed first, followed by a brief assessment of the “consequentialist” arguments. But first a few more introductory remarks are in order.
Firstly, I’ll capture under the header of “fascism” a group of closely related ideologies and -isms including neo-Nazism, racism, white supremacism (or “white nationalism”), and the so-called “alt-right” (including the “alt-lite”). Fascism is a family of political ideologies that combine most or all of the following –isms: authoritarianism, nationalism/patriotism, anti-liberalism, racism/supremacism (and other kinds of “othering”), anti-feminism, anti-intellectualism/anti-scientism, and reactionary utopianism (that is, the idealization of some time in the past when the country was supposed to be “great” and that it needs to return to). If this list of -isms is used as a checklist, then for everything captured under the header of “fascism” in this essay, most check-boxes can be checked, and consequently, that characterization as fascist is appropriate.
Secondly, anti-fascists use various tactics in the fight against fascism and generally avoid violence when other options are available. Nevertheless, it is the occasional use of violence by anti-fascists that has attracted the most attention and controversy, and it is mainly for that reason that I will focus on the use of violent tactics in the following.
Thirdly, the most obvious difference between fascist and anti-fascist uses of violence is that the former is nearly always offensive and the latter nearly always defensive. Violence is almost always initiated by fascists rather than by anti-fascists, and fascist violence tends to be much more extreme than the anti-fascist response. These claims are controversial, however. Surprisingly many people believe the right-wing propaganda that depicts the fascists as innocent defenders of free speech and the anti-fascists as the “bad guys” harassing them. Available evidence – such as Youtube videos and independent witness reports – supports the claims that it is almost always the fascists who initiate violence and that fascist violence is much more extreme. However, my arguments in this short essay do not depend on these claims.
three fundamental differences
The idea that there is no significant difference between anti-fascist violence and fascist violence is a remarkably short-sighted idea. It ignores the difference in motives between the two groups, and it ignores the nature of fascism. There are, in fact, fundamental differences between the fascist and anti-fascist uses of violence.
Fascism is violence. Fascism is an ideology of hate. It advocates violent repression of social groups defined by race, sexual preference, religion, gender, or otherwise. It advocates violent repression of its opponents. And it aims at abolishing civil liberties, at the very least for its opponents and for the members of the social groups it hates.
When fascists use violence (except in self-defense), they use it against people because of what those people are. Fascists beat up black people because they are black. They beat up Muslims because they are Muslim. They beat up homosexuals because they are homosexual. And so forth.
All that the victims of fascist violence do “wrong” is belonging to a social group that fascists hate. In other words, they did not actually do anything wrong; they merely are wrong in the fascists’ eyes. But because they did not do anything wrong, they are innocent. Hence, the victims of fascist violence (again excepting violence in self-defense) are innocent victims.
When anti-fascists use violence, they use it against fascists because of what those do, namely using and propagating violence against the innocent. Anti-fascists use violent tactics – as well as many other tactics! – to stop fascists from using and propagating violence. When anti-fascists use violence, they exclusively target fascists – and generally just the most threatening and/or most violent among those. The victims of anti-fascist violence are fascists. The victims of anti-fascist violence are those who use and propagate violence against the innocent. But that means that the victims of anti-fascist violence are not innocent themselves – in the contrary, they are guilty. They are guilty of using and propagating violence against the innocent.
The foregoing reveals three fundamental differences between fascist and anti-fascist violence.
(1) Fascists targets people because of what those people are (namely, members of hated groups). Anti-fascists target fascists because of what those fascists do (namely, using and propagating violence).
(2) The victims of fascist violence are innocent victims (except in case of self-defense), while the victims of anti-fascist violence are guilty (of using and propagating violence against innocents).
And (3), fascists aim at an escalation or institutionalization of violence against the groups they hate, while anti-fascists aim at stopping violence. Or in other words, fascists want more violence, while anti-fascists want to stop violence. Particularly, fascists want more violence against, and more violent repression of the social groups they hate (including their opponents), while anti-fascists want to stop violence against, and violent repression of innocent people.
One may wonder whether this argument depends too much on the nature of the victims. What if fascists would only target anti-fascists? What if the fight would just be between the adherents of one political ideology and its opponents?
Aside from the fact that this scenario is far removed from reality – fascists do not exclusively target anti-fascists; they do not even primarily target anti-fascists – it also ignores the nature and goals of fascism. Fascism aims to institutionalize the violent repression of the social groups it hates and of its opponents. Fascism is not just another ideology. Fascism – again – is violence. Even if violence would not directly threaten anyone but anti-fascists right now, their ideology is threatening innocent others. If fascists win, or even succeed in spreading their ideas, the consequence is more violence against, and more repression of some groups – of black people, for example, or of sexual or religious minorities, or of women, or of immigrants or refugees, or of all of those. Even if fascists would not directly threaten anyone but anti-fascists right now, it is the very nature of their ideology to threaten innocents with violence and violent repression. And using violent tactics to prevent that is still only directed at the guilty (rather than at the innocent), and only aimed at preventing more violence. In other words, even if fascists would not directly threaten anyone but anti-fascist right now, the above argument is still valid, and consequently, there are fundamental differences between fascist and anti-fascist uses of violence.
the freedom of speech
One argument against anti-fascist violence that is often brought up by liberals (and, of course, by fascists themselves) is that it prevents fascists from exerting their right to free speech. Anti-fascist activism – according to this argument – is an attack against the freedom of speech.
Even if this is true that doesn’t necessarily mean that it is a good argument. It assumes that the freedom of speech should be absolute and unlimited, and that is debatable. And it assumes that fascists are entitled to appeal to the freedom of speech, and that is debatable as well.
Fascism aims to abolish civil liberties – including the freedom of speech – for their opponents and for the members of the social groups they hate. That is the very nature of fascism. I can’t repeat this often enough: fascism is not just another ideology; fascism is violence. Under a fascist regime there is no freedom of speech, and certainly there is no freedom of speech for repressed groups and for the opponents of the regime. Fascism aims to abolish the freedom of speech, and consequently, a fascist appealing to the freedom of speech is a hypocrite. When a fascist appeals to the freedom of speech, what he demands is his freedom to spread fascist ideas, but he simultaneously demands the repression of opposing ideas. That is fascism. And it is for that reason that it is debatable whether fascists are entitled to appeal to the freedom of speech. If someone demands a right for himself and wants (to use that right) to abolish that same right for others, then it is not immediately obvious that that someone should be granted that right in the first place.
The idea that the freedom of speech should be absolute is even more dubious. It isn’t hard to find some liberal nitwit on the Internet who says of fascists something like “I disagree with everything you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”. It’s easy to say something like that if you don’t belong to one of the groups that is directly threatened by fascism. It is no accident that the fiercest defenders of free speech rights for fascists – aside from fascists themselves, of course – are white, middle-class men. These defenders of free speech belong to the (relatively) privileged groups that have least to fear of fascism, and that even have nothing to fear of fascism as long as that remains marginal and only occasionally kills a few black people, homosexuals, Mexicans, or other “others”.
In The Open Society and its Enemies, Karl Popper pointed out that there is a natural limit to tolerance and, therefore, to free speech. A tolerant society cannot allow the spread of a kind of intolerance that would undo that society. Tolerating a kind of intolerance that would destroy tolerance is self-defeating. And consequently, a tolerant society must be intolerant towards intolerance in order to remain tolerant. Popper called this “the paradox of tolerance”. The paradox applies equally to the freedom of speech: letting freedom of speech destroy itself by allowing the right of free speech to be used to abolish free speech is self-defeating.
Popper’s conclusion isn’t universally accepted, however. There are some who believe that free speech cannot and should not be limited in any way. Usually this idea is motivated by a belief that rational debate will always marginalize those who abuse free speech to abolish it as well as other kinds of extremists. That belief seems rather naive, however. Hitler was elected, and so were various other bigots and (pseudo-)fascists. Intolerant extremism appears to do rather well in the marketplace of ideas, and rational debate is rare and mostly inconsequential in politics.
Furthermore, I can’t help wondering how principled these free speech fundamentalists really are. I suspect that, if they would suddenly find themselves to be members of a group singled out for repression or extermination by some fascist hate group, they would rather quickly change their tune. Again, defending the free speech of fascists is easy if you’re not a likely victim of fascist violence or of violence resulting from fascist rhetoric and the spread of fascist ideas. Saying that fascists have the right to free speech is saying that it is acceptable to spread hate and to promote violence against innocent others. That’s easy if your not one of those “others”, but it’s also unconvincing, and it reeks of a rather loathsome kind of indifference.
Regardless of whether Popper was right, it should be clear from the foregoing that the assumption that fascists have the right to use free speech to undermine the free speech of others is on much shakier ground than usually assumed. And if that is the case, then the argument that anti-fascists prevent fascists from exerting their right to free speech becomes much less convincing as well. It can be easily argued that anti-fascists do not prevent fascists from exerting a right, but from abusing it. Or that anti-fascists aim to prevent fascists from restricting the right to free speech.
But even if the assumptions that free speech is unlimited and absolute and that fascists have the right to free speech are granted, it is not obvious that the charge is actually true: Does anti-fascist activism prevent fascists from exerting their right to free speech?
The freedom of speech is a right to express your opinion without fear of punishment by the government for expressing that opinion. The freedom of speech is limited when some expressions of opinion would be punishable offenses. Anti-fascist activists do not limit the free speech in that sense (but anti-hate-speech legislation does, and probably justifiably so). Furthermore, The freedom of speech is a right to express opinions, but not a right to be listened to, and certainly not a right to force others to listen to you. Preventing someone from forcing others to listen to them is not an infringement of free speech. Fascist actions far exceed whatever rights the freedom of speech gives them and an appeal to free speech, therefore, fails. And even if it would succeed, anti-fascists do no limit free speech, because only the government can limit free speech (because only the government can make expressing an opinion a punishable offense.)
Consequently, even if the aforementioned dubious assumptions are granted, the argument that anti-fascist activism prevents fascists from exerting their right to free speech turns out to be nonsense.
According to consequentalist arguments against anti-fascist activism, some of the tactics used by anti-fascists are bad because they don’t have the right kind of consequences. Violence only helps the fascists, they claim. Or it alienates more moderate anti-fascists and centrists. Similar things are said about other anti-fascist tactics, symbols, and appearances, but I’ll continue to focus on violence here, because questions about violence seem to be the most divisive.
Many of the decisive event in the struggle against fascism in Germany and the UK have been violent events. In the US as well, the fall-out of the violence in Charlottesvile has done more for the containment of the extreme right than any less violent event. In other words, that violence only helps the fascists is unconvincing at least, and more likely even downright wrong. Allowing fascists to spread their ideas by refusing to limit their right to “free speech” helps fascism. Resisting the spread of fascism – if needed by means of violence – does not help fascism.
In the contrary, violent resistance to fascism hurts fascism much more than that it helps it. Fascism is a hyper-masculine ideology: it celebrates strength and toughness, as well as various other aspects of “toxic masculinity”. Because of that, a defeat in a physical fight is not just painful and humiliating for a fascist, but is an ideological defeat as well; especially if it is a defeat against the defenders of a worldview that stresses more “feminine” values like tolerance and cooperation. (And even more if the defeat is followed by further (self-inflicted) humiliation (such as blubbering Youtube videos).)
Violent resistance against fascism has worked in the past, and there is little reason to believe that it suddenly stopped working. Whether something is good or bad – from a consequentialist point of view – depends on the sum total of consequences, however, so we need to take other consequences into account. Using violence against fascists may make people feel sorry for those fascists, and even sympathize with them, some liberals may argue, for example. This might be true, but if those people sympathize more with a beaten-up fascist than with the innocent victim that that fascist (or his friends) beat up first, then those people are awfully close to fascism already.
Another argument against violence and other relatively “extremist” tactics may that those alienate moderates and centrist and (further) marginalize anti-fascists and, therefore, weaken rather than strengthen the struggle against fascism. Perhaps, it is true that violence alienates centrists, but centrists are unlikely allies in the fight against fascism anyway. It’s in the very nature of the political center to avoid any kind of “strong” political action and to favor tactics of reason, diplomacy, and moderation. History teaches that none of those work against fascism, however. In the contrary, the centrist reluctance to seriously oppose fascism gives the fascists a platform and even protects them. Furthermore, history also teaches that while the tactics of Antifa may alienate centrists, the violent fallout of those tactics does motivate many others to join the fight. Violent confrontation with fascists has resulted in a considerable growth of popular support for anti-fascist action in Germany and the UK, and may very well have the same effect in the US. Alienating centrists – who are mostly useless anyway – is a small price to pay if the same tactics result in an increase of support from more useful allies.
There are, however, circumstances in which the use of violence just marginalizes anti-fascists. If the mass media consistently depict anti-fascists as the initiators and main perpetrators of violence, and depicts fascists as their victims, and if the mass media copy the right-wing trope that the anti-fascism is an attack on the freedom of speech, then indeed, anti-fascist activism may alienate more people than recruit them. If the mass media is largely on the side of the fascists – and that appears to be the case in the US – then the battle against fascism is an uphill battle.
But even then there are reasons not to avoid violence – including consequentialist reasons. The use of violence by anti-fascists tends to be mostly defensive – either in self-defense, or in defense of innocent others who are threatened by fascists – but even if it is not, it is usually very targeted and relatively minor in scope. Such targeted minor violence – as well as other tactics employed by anti-fascists – often provokes extreme responses from the fascists, and those extreme responses are strategically useful. When they become extreme enough the mass media can no longer ignore them and will find it harder and harder to depict the fascists as the good guys and the anti-fascists as the bad guys. The events in Charlottesvile appear to have this kind of effect, even if centrists are screaming harder than ever that anti-fascists are just as bad as the fascists.
the justification of violent tactics
To recapitulating the main points made above: there are fundamental differences between fascist violence and anti-fascist violence; the argument that anti-fascists prevent fascists from exerting their right to free speech is dubious at best; and consequentialist arguments against Antifa are unconvincing – if anything a consequentualist should support violent tactics against fascists.
This still leaves two unanswered questions: (1) Is is actually justified to use violence against fascists? And (2) why do centrist liberals and many others so strongly oppose anti-fascists?
From a consequentialist point of view, the use of violent tactics in the fight against fascism are probably justified. As argued above, there is more reason to believe that such tactics work (i.e. have good consequences) than that they don’t or that they have overwhelmingly bad consequences. For a non-consequentialist that would not be a convincing argument, however, because for a non-consequentialist whether something is right or wrong is not (just) determined by consequences.
Alternative ways of judging kinds of actions are based on rules or principles or on motives. Fascist violence is motivated by bigotry and hatred; anti-fascist violence is motivated by a desire to protect the innocent and to prevent bigotry and hatred from spreading. If motives determine whether some kind of action is right or wrong, then fascist violence is wrong and anti-fascist violence is right.
A principle- or rule-based account is more complex. If one adheres to a principle that violence is inherently wrong – and there is much to say for such a principle – then violence against fascists is wrong. The question remains, however, whether abstaining from violence is always right, and if both are wrong, which is the greater wrong. If one maintains that there is no obligation to prevent others from using and propagating violence against the innocent, then anti-fascist violence would be wrong; if one believes that there is such an obligation, then it is a matter of weighing the greater and lesser wrong. These are matters have been debated by moral philosophers for centuries, and no solution satisfying everyone has thus far been found. In other words, the position that it is better to do nothing while fascists use violence against the innocent than to use violence to stop them is – according to some philosophers – a defensible position. I think this is a disturbingly cold-hearted and egocentric ethic, however. And as in the case of free speech fundamentalism (see above), one may wonder how sincerely the adherents of this position really hold it. Will they still claim that doing nothing when others are attacked is right when they are those “others” under attack?
If we ignore this latter kind of facile and egocentric extremism the answer to the question whether the use of violent tactics to prevent fascism from spreading is morally justified is fairly straightforward: even if such violence is wrong, it is still better than allowing fascism to spread. And consequently, such violent tactics are justified.
centrism and (or as?) extremism
Centrist liberals and other kinds of moderates oppose both fascism and anti-fascism because they reject all extremes. In The Extreme Centre, Tariq Ali showed convincingly that the political center is itself extremist, but let’s ignore that. Centrists oppose what they consider to be the “extremes” because those “extremes” threaten the status quo. Centrists predominantly belong to the privileged social groups: white, middle-class, educated males are over-represented among centrists. The privileged fear the “extremes” because those might take away some of their privileges. And for that reason, the center – with the help of the centrist and right-wing mass media – does all it can to discredit and undermine anti-fascism. More than the extreme right, it is the political center – including the moderate “left” – that continuously repeats the nonsensical idea that Antifa is just as bad as the neo-Nazis they fight against, but they also use other means to discredit anti-fascism. They claim that anti-fascist activists are all anarchists or communists or members of other “extremist fringe groups”, for example, or they claim the opposite, namely that anti-fascist are just violent rioters who only use the symbols of “extremist” ideologies for show, or they even make both contradictory claims at the same time.
Centrists do not just refuse to act against fascism, but actively try to undermine those who do (which appears to mean that they consider fascism less of a threat than anti-fascism). Hence, they do worse than nothing in the struggle against fascism: they help fascists. Centrist do not just allow fascists to continue spreading an ideology of hatred and violence, but even want to remove the obstacles that might hinder the fascists in doing so.
Nietzsche once warned that “who is fighting monsters has to watch out that he doesn’t become a monster oneself” (Beyond Good and Evil, §146). Because of their refusal to fight monsters, centrists/moderates don’t have to fear becoming monsters. Those who not just refuse to fight monsters, but even disallow others to fight and as a consequence let the innocent suffer are already monsters.
* * *
Fascism is evil. The anti-fascist use of violence has shown to be an effective – perhaps even the only effective – tactic to prevent the spread of fascism, but can also be justified on other (non-consequentialist) grounds. Furthermore, there are fundamental differences between the fascist and anti-fascist uses of violence. For these reasons, the centrist claim that anti-fascists are as just as bad as fascists is nonsensical. It is propaganda aimed at discrediting and undermining those who fight the evil of fascism.
Anti-fascists stand in between the fascists and their victims. Anti-fascists stand up to prevent fascists from spreading their vile doctrine of hate. And anti-fascists take considerable risks in doing that. They are doing this because they believe that what they are doing is right. And it is right. They are right. No, … they are more than right. Anti-fascist activists are heroes.