As we’ve seen the alt-right and various white supremacist and fascistic groups grow in prominence if not necessarily numbers in recent years and now be granted renewed prominence and validation from the President, we see a renewed debate about the role of violence in American politics. Specifically, what is the best way and the appropriate way to react to and combat the always menacing and often violent actions of the kind of people we saw protesting in Charlottesville?
A lot of this debate has gone under the rubric of “nazi-punching” after alt-right leader Richard Spencer was cold-cocked at a demonstration on the fringes of the President’s inauguration. It’s also gotten renewed attention because of the growing prominence of small but high-profile groups going under the name of “antifa”. There are a lot of details here. But I want to focus narrowly on what we should think of groups that not only protest racist groups or come prepared to defend themselves against violence from racist groups but see it as their goal to confront these groups on equal terms in street confrontations. In other words, groups that go looking for confrontations and want to get into street brawls.
Before proceeding further, I want to address what I think are some important caveats. As we saw in the days after Charlottesville, President Trump went to great lengths to equate the two groups which met in Charlottesville – his various references to “many sides” and so forth. The most important point to keep in mind here is that the vast majority of the people protesting the white supremacists and Nazis were not violent – either in philosophy or practice. They were there protesting defiantly but peacefully against marchers whose very message was one of menace and threatened violence. Others were prepared for confrontations if the other side became violent but weren’t looking to initiate violence.
On a basic philosophical level, embracing violence to combat political and moral evils like racism and fascism is simply not equivalent to embracing violence to advance these evils. Any liberalism or constitutionalism that is so bloodless that it can’t make these distinctions is too ornate and theoretical to exist in the wild. So the entirety of Trump’s equivalence is false. But again, what should our attitude be towards even small groups who embrace physical confrontations and violence as the way to confront these groups?
I believe that if you look both historically and in practice, when you have widespread street brawling between “good” groups and “bad” groups it almost always ends up being a victory for the fascist groups. This is for a number of reasons. First is that these groups have historically used the presence of civil violence to justify “law and order” crackdowns which usually empower and propagate authoritarian politics. You can already see this, tendentiously, in those hideous NRA video hate screeds. Again, history tells us this and I think it’s close to intuitive: breakdowns of civil peace lead to authoritarian crackdowns, which almost always have a right-wing and often racist valence.
In a related but more general sense, it is precisely the aim of fascistic groups to shift the basis of civic dialog, space and politics from law to violence. To put it another way, they are trying to shift the basis of society and power from law, voting, equality to force, violence and the domination of the most powerful. And in this case we mean power as expressed by the superior ability to wield violence. Once we’ve moved from one to the other, fascists have to a significant degree already won. The Nazis and white supremacists are literally trying to create a “both sides” situation. We should not help them.
Now, a frequent counter this is the argument about the Nazis and how non-violent resistance didn’t save Germany or eventually the Jews or eventually much of the globe which was engulfed in wars triggered by the Nazi party. This argument is both better and worse than it may seem on the surface. Let’s discuss it for a moment.
There’s a voluminous literature, not surprisingly, about what is called the Nazi ‘seizure of power’. A key section of that debate centers on the fact that there was, by and large, no resistance when the Nazis took the formal powers they had gained through the machinery of the Weimar state and used it to create a dictatorship. This wasn’t a drawn out or vague process. It occurred over a matter of months in 1933. It happened fast.
One of the key critiques of what we might call the opposition to Hitler has to do with the German Social Democratic Party, the main party of the non-Communist left. By and large the SPD, still a mass party in Germany, did not resort to extra-constitutional or violent means to resist Hitler’s coup from above. Indeed, there’s at least an argument that the parties of the left and center still constituted the majority. The argument has always been that the SPD, though nominally a Marxist party, was so wedded to constitutionalism and democracy that it was either unable or unwilling to resist the destruction of the Weimar state by extra-constitutional or violent means.
This very simple review leaves out a world of complexity. Again, there’s a vast literature on the Nazi seizure of power, which you can read. I put it out there to note that there is a time when violence and extra-constitutional action is likely the only way to prevent fascism and dictatorship. But, paradoxically, the resort to street violence, political paramilitaries and empowered violence over law is also the surest route to the destruction of democracy and dictatorship. Quite simply, as dire a situation as I think the country’s in, we are not remotely in a position comparable to the Spring of 1933 in Germany. Suggesting otherwise amounts to a grandiose and self-flattering conceit.
Now, hearing this argument you might think I’m arguing for a bloodless “I may disagree with what you say but I’ll fight for your right to say it” argument. It’s not. I actually like seeing Nazis get punched. Nor do I think all views deserve a right of equal hearing in a democratic society. Philosophies that seek to destroy democracy and the rule of law don’t merit equal validation by a democracy. We grant them certain rights because doing so is consistent with a larger system of laws and rights that guarantees a civil society that is the antithesis of what they believe in. Put another way, Nazis deserve to get punched. A few sucker punches here and there probably send a salutary message. But it’s not always wise to give people what they deserve.
I also think that in cases where the police either refuse to protect or are unable to protect the victims of fascist intimidation and violence that there should be defense groups that do so. That is defensive violence in specific situations. And more generally that only presupposes the breakdown of the state and its basic responsibilities which it should be our main goal to avoid.
The entirety of this seems still a largely marginal issue – a few street brawls in different parts of the country in which Nazis come out to march and intimidate and left-wing groups go out to meet them also looking for a fight. This is a tiny, tiny percentage of those counter-protesting these people. And I don’t include here people who simply defend themselves when attacked. But it’s still worth thinking this question through – even at a distance – since we live in troubled times.
Pushing civil society from talk and voting to violence and paramilitaries is what the fascists are trying to accomplish – moving from the rule of law to the rule of force. By every historical standard and also by almost every philosophical one, this is a victory for, if not fascism, then certainly authoritarianism. The answer to Nazis and white supremacists isn’t flowery talk or left-wing paramilitaries. It’s a stronger rule of law and an empowered state behind it. We have our work cut out for us.