Nov 13, 2021

Understanding A22 PDX: The Scraps

The following is part of a series of responses to the events of August 22, 2001 (A22) in Portland, Oregon. We support any and all genuine and honest discussion that is of use to our movements regardless of whether we agree with what is raised and put forward. We also understand that real debate can be sharp and at times raw. We will attempt to be conscious of this and as stated previously, a fundamental part of our guidelines are based on 

principled responses, not personal attacks or sectarian squabbles (or, for that matter, uncritical boosterism). We also ask that submissions take into consideration issues of movement security, remembering that both the fascists and the state will be searching for faultiness to divide our movements.  

We appreciate the responses we have received and look forward to those others working to contribute to this discussion. – 3WF



The Scraps


by Morris Beckman

But this gets back to a more important question, one that supersedes the question of effective antifascism and gets to something more fundamental: what was the goal of the counter-organizing on August 22nd? What does it look like to win?
Proud Boys and their allies at the abandoned Kmart near Parkrose.
Photo courtesy of The Oregonian.

As I watched the final confrontations on August 22nd, a few questions started to race through my mind. We were within earshot of Parkrose High School, the most diverse educational center in the otherwise largely white city of Portland, in the solidly working-class area of Parkrose. While surely on the path of gentrification, this neighborhood has largely remained a place where working families can buy a house, where union signs outpace American flags, and where people treat the houseless encampments as neighbors (with more or less success). That is to say that it is old Portland modernized: it has the working-class sensibility but with a slightly more left orientation and actual diversity rather than the tokenizing grad-school variety.

We were late into the afternoon and anything that could have been properly called a form of antifascist organizing had largely come to an end. Instead these were the final scraps: the left-overs yelling at each other, unclear what the function of the confrontation even was. This was the end of what, from other angles, had been referred to as a rousing success. The long and short of it is that the Proud Boys (amongst other far-right cliques) tried to hold a rally in the city center. Antifascist groups, including Rose City Antifa, mobilized a counter-demonstration, progressive groups staged a press conference, and the pressure ostensibly worked: the Proud Boys moved their rally out of the city center. Instead, they pushed it to the edge of Parkrose, where they staged a humiliating occupation in the parking lot of an abandoned K-Mart.

The counter-demonstration continued with the expected party vibe, ensuring that the far-right wouldn’t change their mind and try to filter in and attack protesters. But as the hours ticked away, a few people were unsatisfied with this and, in an incredibly defensible point, decided that leaving the far-right to the diverse Parkrose neighborhood was unconscionable. While the black bloc was here socializing the Proud Boys could be doing God-knows-what surrounded by working class communities of color. So small, uncoordinated, autonomous groups of antifascists began heading over to the Parkrose neighborhoods with confrontation in mind.
We were late into the afternoon and anything that could have been properly called a form of antifascist organizing had largely come to an end. Instead these were the final scraps: the left-overs yelling at each other, unclear what the function of the confrontation even was. This was the end of what, from other angles, had been referred to as a rousing success.
And people were not wrong to be concerned: the Proud Boys attacked press and counter-demonstrators, flipping over a van and reveling in their violence. But as groups came to engage in physical confrontation, it became clear that they did not have the numbers and had not arrived in time to disrupt anything of substance. Instead, they were there for the scraps, and this amounted to shouting matches with disturbed individuals barely grasping the political nature of the rally they just attended.

Tactical questions are often framed as moral ones, so we should be clear that those antifascists who showed up did so for legitimate reasons. More than this, there is a clear strategic argument to be made for moving over to Parkrose. The question we should ask is, why did it not go better? What could be different?

A basic assessment of effectiveness should be the bedrock of any form of organizing. (Pluses and deltas, anybody?) Without that, the subjective experience of attendees is preferenced over the results they claim to seek.

Sometimes it is important to break ideas down to their component parts, so it is worthwhile asking what antifascism is. While it is, well, against fascism, there is more at play when someone is using the term in the kind of context you often see in places like Portland, Oregon. It means strategies up to, and including, militant antifascism, which itself has a spectrum and a whole backpack full of tactics. But most importantly, antifascism is about defense above conversion: people need to be safe first, you could try and flip a Proud Boy later (if such a thing is possible). Antifascism suggests that disruption and “no platforming” are useful because when fascist groups have their functionality tampered with they necessarily begin to collapse their effectiveness and then, noting the first principle, safety is achieved. Another piece of this is the “we go where they go” idea, which is to say that fascists should not have the ability to move around antifascists and continue their operation.
Tactical questions are often framed as moral ones, so we should be clear that those antifascists who showed up did so for legitimate reasons. More than this, there is a clear strategic argument to be made for moving over to Parkrose. The question we should ask is, why did it not go better? What could be different?
With that last question in mind, a problem emerges with August 22nd: the far-right changed locations, effectively circumventing the opposition. This was exactly the situation critiqued by autonomous antifascists who came looking for them.

But this gets back to a more important question, one that supersedes the question of effective antifascism and gets to something more fundamental: what was the goal of the counter-organizing on August 22nd? What does it look like to win?

The first goal was clear, to get the Proud Boys out of their public event space, and it was an unimpeachable success. For years the far-right has staged these frenzied spectacles smack in the center of downtown Portland and has literally left blood stains on the concrete. It took years to build up the counter-organizing enough to create a spectre so large that antifascists did not even have to confront the far-right. Just the fear of the size of the counter-demonstration made them cancel their plans. This is the best-case scenario.

Proud Boys and allies at the abandoned Kmart near Parkrose.
Photo courtesy of The Oregonian.

“This is always the best case scenario. The worst case scenario is that we actually do have to get confrontational! We don't want that,” said Daryle Lamont Jenkins of the One People’s Project, who was at the August 22nd counter-demonstration, and referenced a New York event a couple of weeks earlier where antifascists held the line but refused to take the bait and get into visible fights with the Proud Boys. “We have to show that we are above their B.S... because when we confront them it's the last resort.”

But if we zoom out and see that the rally continued anyway, where is the victory? Community organizing is not built on absolutes, it is built on practical and measurable successes. In that way, the moving of the rally is clearly a measurable success. They have less access to people, the location they ended up in does not interface quite as much as the earlier location did. This is not the grand success a total cancelation would have been, but it is not clear whether that level of success is on the table. Instead, the moving of the event may have been as much as was practically possible in terms of pre-event pressure. That does not, however, answer the question of “going where they go.”

This question has to still be answered by a measure of goals. At the downtown rally location, the crowd was ready for there to be an incursion by the far-right. This left many activists on edge, which is behind a number of reports of internal squabbling and altercations with unaffiliated street preachers or random passersby. The question is not if those people are offensive—many certainly are—but whether they are fascists who require antifascism as a response. If they aren’t, then what’s the point?

In Parkrose, the same question remains. If the goal is to “no platform” the far-right, then an assessment has to be made as to whether or not that is possible. Instigating fights can get you and others hurt, and while that is not the ethical responsibility of antifascists (the far-right is always to blame for their violence, full stop), it is still something to be considered. If you do not have the numbers to go where the far-right is rallying and successfully counter-demonstrate it so as to stop its functionality, there is a valid question about whether or not it should happen. This is the kind of question that antifascist organizations ask constantly when making plans, and they make cost/benefit equations when making choices. They do not, for example, try to take on the far-right in situations where they would necessarily get their members or supporters hurt. This is exactly the choice that was made on August 30th of last year when the Proud Boys held a rally at Delta Park in Portland. The location is hard to get in and out of, and it was determined that the Proud Boys would have been more than equipped to harm a community counter-demonstration if they tried to crowd into the same space. So they held the counter-demonstration over a mile away, still close enough to respond if the Proud Boys strayed from their location and into the city looking for a fight. At the location itself, the Proud Boys attacked journalists and some reporters even had to come with armed security.

The question of confrontation is not a moral one, it is a practical one. Confrontation is not a chance for individual transcendence, to feel righteous or alive through action, its purpose is to stop people from hurting others and from growing their movement. But when only a small handful arrives and is unable to do anything other than act as a punching bags for fascists, it helps them build up their propaganda apparatus, claim victory, and possibly even recruit. It can have the opposite effect, even if the intention was to “go where they go.”

Autonomy is a critical piece of all social movements, and no formal organization should control a horizontal mass of people. Organizers rely on activists in the periphery who make up the majority of a given action—so no one expects everyone to act in perfect concert. But there is a clear disparity between the people who have done this work for years and those who have arrived with little experience and insist on calling shots for their “affinity group.” Just because you can do it doesn’t mean you are effective, warranted, or helpful, and this is a key piece of the problem. Autonomous organizing, which breaks away from collective responsibility and accountability, can help empower people. It can also send a fundamentally liberal message that individual orientations, emotions, and satisfaction is the same thing as revolutionary organizing. It can mean that your own ephemeral feeling of liberation (which is just a feeling since it is hardly upheld by material circumstances) is more important than the success of the larger social movement. There is a valid question about whether or not the Parkrose neighborhood should have been protected, but the equally valid question is whether or not the people showing up were in any position to defend it. Instead, several of the people moved into positions they weren’t able to defend, without the skills to do it, and ignited conflicts they had to be bailed out of.

In the end, several people spent their time yelling back and forth with people who had no agency in the movement and made up no constituency: none of it mattered. In those cases, the anger that percolates can turn on itself and become corrosive. A journalist was attacked in what could be interpreted as gender-based violence given the slurs that the attackers used. The question of that journalist is probably one for another article, there are certainly reasons that reporters taking photos are a problem, but what does this serve? Did this help defend Parkrose? At a moment when Antifa has become a scare word for the uninitiated, what did this do? Where is the goal?

Antifascism should not be about personal transformation. It isn’t about “doing your best.” You aren’t there to “join the fight, “do your part,” “take a stand,” or “make your voice heard.” You’re there to win. That means being strategic at all times, working backward from set goals. A screaming match may be effective, you cannot prescribe that in the abstract. But it also often isn’t since it’s unclear how any of this leads down the path to goals. Undermining them, going under the radar to combust their functionality, figuring out the way to really do damage, that is the task. We don’t come to antifascism to know ourselves. We came to win. Without that in mind, we have already lost. I, for one, have no interest in being heard or celebrating my autonomy. I have one goal in mind: destroy the far-right. And I work backwards from that. If I can’t describe how a series of tactics leads to the goal, in a way that builds on evidence and history, then it sets us back rather than takes us forward.
Autonomy is a critical piece of all social movements, and no formal organization should control a horizontal mass of people. Organizers rely on activists in the periphery who make up the majority of a given action—so no one expects everyone to act in perfect concert. But there is a clear disparity between the people who have done this work for years and those who have arrived with little experience and insist on calling shots for their “affinity group.” Just because you can do it doesn’t mean you are effective, warranted, or helpful, and this is a key piece of the problem. Autonomous organizing, which breaks away from collective responsibility and accountability, can help empower people. It can also send a fundamentally liberal message that individual orientations, emotions, and satisfaction is the same thing as revolutionary organizing. It can mean that your own ephemeral feeling of liberation (which is just a feeling since it is hardly upheld by material circumstances) is more important than the success of the larger social movement. There is a valid question about whether or not the Parkrose neighborhood should have been protected, but the equally valid question is whether or not the people showing up were in any position to defend it. Instead, several of the people moved into positions they weren’t able to defend, without the skills to do it, and ignited conflicts they had to be bailed out of.
There is a process whereby well thought out theoretical and practical radical ideas leave the context in which they were created and are then sometimes reinterpreted in the clumsiest and most confusing way possible. “We go where they go” is a fundamental piece of antifascism, but only when going there wins something and there is enough of a "we" to do something. Antifascism itself is only useful when we are up against fascists, not passersby with stupid bumper stickers. If we want to win, and I really hope that is the actual intent here, we have to know what winning is and apply just the basic modicum of responsibility necessary to take a plan to fruition. 

Author Bio: Morris Beckman is an antifascist writer and organizer.

Related posts:

Understanding A22 PDX: discussion and analysis for the antifascist movements

Understanding A22 PDX: Three Responses

Understanding A22 PDX: Never Let the Nazis Have the Story! The Narrative Aspect of Conflict

Understanding A22 PDX: Broader implications for militant movements

Understanding A22 PDX: Response from a Comrade, "We Go Where They Go" as strategy for militant antifascism

There Will Always Be More Of Us: Antifascist Organizing

It was no Harpers Ferry: August 22d wasn’t an accident, it was a product of our thinking

A Diversity of Tactics is Not Enough; We Need Rules of Engagement

Nov 3, 2021

Where Do We Go Next? A Review of Shane Burley’s Why We Fight

In this review essay, Three Way Fight contributor Devin Zane Shaw examines a wide-ranging set of writings on current fascist movements and antifascist strategy. In the process, Shaw advances a distinctive argument about fascism's class politics, an issue on which Three Way Fight supporters hold a range of perspectives.

Shane Burley, Why We Fight: Essays on Fascism, Resistance, and Surviving the Apocalypse. AK Press, 2021. 353pp.

Reviewed by Devin Zane Shaw

When it was published in 2017, Shane Burley’s Fascism Today: What It Is and How to End It was among a spate of books, coming from the militant antifascist tradition, focused on outlining and combating the contemporary threat of fascism. Though his research began before events surrounding the 2016 US presidential campaign, it was given a new impetus and urgency with the public emergence of the Alt Right as a political force and the election of Donald Trump as president. Burley’s book stands out for melding the concerns of Mark Bray’s Antifa: The Antifascist Handbook (2017) and the in-depth research on the far right that animates Matthew N. Lyons’s Insurgent Supremacists: The U.S. Far Right’s Challenge to State and Empire (2018) (Lyons also wrote the foreword for Fascism Today). I cannot believe I’m about to deliver a retrospective evaluation of a book which is not yet five years old, but Lenin’s apocryphal comment that “there are weeks where decades happen” resonates with many of us these days, thus: Fascism Today remains, like Bray’s and Lyons’s respective contributions, one of the representative texts for understanding the concerns and aims of militant antifascism during that period.

Cover of Why We Fight by Shaney Burley, with photo of protesters in gas masks carrying shields
Burley’s Why We Fight: Essays on Fascism, Resistance, and Surviving the Apocalypse opens with a distinctly different mood, with an introduction that ruminates on millennialist currents within fascist groups, climate apocalypse, and possibilities opened by an antifascist opposition—in a world of cycling if not accelerating capitalist crises—to the ever-present threat of barbarism. It’s a mood that reflects the shifting terrain of militant antifascist struggle on the uncertain ground of the pandemic (having been compiled for publication, it seems, in Spring 2020), and it remains relevant in light of the more recent moment of liberal triumphalism (having electorally “defeated” so-called “Trumpism”) and the theoretical and practical challenges posed by the reorganization of fascist and far-right movements. However, there is a sharp difference in mood between the Introduction and the first two thirds of the book, which has to do with how the book is organized. Why We Fight includes a selection of articles—some substantially revised—from 2017 to 2020 and it also contains several previously unpublished essays, many of which round out the end of the book.

The Fall of the Alt Right

As I read it, Why We Fight is loosely organized into three thematic sections. The first thematic section, from the chapter “Disunite the Right” to “The Fall of the Alt Right Came from Antifascism” (in other words, the first three chapters after the Introduction), covers the trajectory of the Alt Right, which one can glean through the chapter titles themselves. It is a direct sequel to Burley’s analysis in Fascism Today. There, as I mentioned, he covers the rising threat of new fascist movements. Here, he chronicles the collapse of the Alt Right, which positioned itself for a time as the vanguard of the contemporary far right. This sequence demonstrates how pressure applied by militant antifascist organizing led to splits within far-right groups that had formed pragmatic but uneasy coalitions. The substance of Burley’s argument is that the fight against fascism is not won by purely legal mechanisms (he contends that lawsuits can dismantle the financial or material infrastructure of particular far-right groups, but not the broader movement as a whole) or debates in the so-called marketplace of ideas. He concludes:

It is not the vague mysticism of public opinion or the spin from op-eds. What stops white nationalists is activists stopping white nationalists: stopping their project from functioning, from expanding, from making a difference. In this way, the antifascist movement—made up of church groups, student clubs, anarchists, and liberals—has prevented the Alt Right’s infrastructure from self-replicating by throwing a monkey wrench into their machine (59).

In other words, it was militant community-based organizing that outflanked the Alt Right’s organizational efforts.

Each of what I view to be the three loosely thematic sections follow the same sequence: first, Burley sketches the ideological and organizational parameters of far-right activity, balancing how far-right groups elaborate these parameters and how they appear within a critical antifascist perspective, and then he concludes the sequence by examining how antifascists can fight back.

The first thematic section, then, shows how antifascist organizing can splinter far-right coalitions. As Burley notes throughout, fascism seeks to make the implicit hierarchies of social oppression explicit; for example, the United States as a settler-colonial society has a long and ongoing history of heteropatriarchy, antiblack racism, and Indigenous dispossession, and fascist movements seek to re-entrench these social hierarchies to their own social, economic, and political advantage. In the chapter “Disunite the Right,” Burley argues that coalitions between the Alt Right and the Alt Light fractured over just how much of the implicit was to be made explicit. The Alt Right is a white identitarian movement which seeks to transform the United States into an explicitly white ethnostate; “the Alt Right’s principles…all flow downstream from identity” (48). The Alt Light, as the name implies, attempts to present a more palatable version of far-right ideology, which it presents as a kind of right-wing “civic nationalism”: it “tempers its ideas about race yet still utilizes national chauvinism, protectionism, and isolationism” (40). As antifascist pressure mounted against their coalitions, the two groups split. The Alt Right entered coalitions with more explicitly fascist groups and was sidelined by broad antifascist counter-organizing after Charlottesville, while the Alt Light—which, Burley contends, has a much bigger stake in protecting its social media grift, and hence is particularly responsive to pressures of no-platforming or de-platforming—was forced to distance itself from the more explicitly fascist subcultures of the far right. The fall of the Alt Right did not dismantle the danger of fascism and the far right, but it offers a lesson about how to apply pressure to undermine their often tenuous coalitions.

Metapolitics

The second thematic section, from “25 Theses on Fascism” to “How Racists Dream” covers a variety of organizational, cultural, and “metapolitical” aspects of far-right and fascist movements. The chapter “A History of Violence” examines how incidents of supposedly “lone wolf” violence are primed within far-right circles, sometimes implicitly by their rhetoric and behaviour, sometimes explicitly, as in the case of Louis Beam’s influential theory of “leaderless resistance” (laid out in an essay of the same name). Other chapters focus on far-right metapolitics, which attempts to shift the political and intellectual culture of society, pulling it rightwards, to make fascist ideas more palatable and mainstream. “How Racists Dream” covers how publishers have attempted to give fascist ideas an intellectual veneer. The essay “Contested Space” shows how antifascists have attempted to “go where they go” by contesting specific subcultural spaces, including music scenes (many of us remember how punks fought neo-nazis out of that scene decades ago; Burley here covers folk and metal), sports (soccer and gyms), “northern traditions” (heathenry), and self-defense clubs. As Burley notes, “when someone is inside of a subculture, or an organization with subcultural agency in particular, they have more power than they would have individually in the shifting ether of mass politics” (131). It would have been interesting if he had followed up on this observation by assessing whether certain forms of far-right metapolitics have drifted toward subcultures rather than mass organizing because they have been outflanked by antifascists in street-level organizing, since one would presume that the more esoteric their references become, the more they are potentially sidelined within even far-right social ecologies, let alone mass organizing efforts. Nordic symbolism and references to Julius Evola might not carry the overt and widely recognized historical baggage as references to Nazism or Mussolini, but they also aren’t as readily recognizable as the rhetoric and symbols of right-wing “civic nationalism” evinced by patriot movements and the Alt Light.

Self-Help and Supremacism

The third thematic section, from “Introduction to Armageddon” to the end of the book, is unified not so much by a common theme as much as a common scope. There are essays on a wide variety of topics: climate catastrophe, blackface and white identity, a recent history of far-right violence, Rojava and anarchist internationalism, antisemitism, and male supremacist subcultures. There is also a current of autobiographical self-reflection that runs through several essays, but a reconstruction of this aspect is beyond the scope of this review.

Here I will look at the final essay of the book, “Chasing the Black Sun,” which examines male-supremacist fascism. On their face, male supremacist groups which lack an unambiguous racial bar don’t appear to be fascist according to many definitions of the term, though they would still be categorized as far right. Burley argues that Wolves of Vinland and Operation Werewolf (both founded by Paul Waggener) are fascist. The Wolves of Vinland are well-known to researchers of the far right, and Burley notes that within the far-right milieu, their “fascist bonafides are unquestionable” (263). The present discussion will focus on Operation Werewolf (hereafter OPWW). Burley argues that OPWW sanitizes much of the white supremacist ideology which undergirds the Wolves of Vinland, but nonetheless this “self-help business empire” also acts as a Trojan horse for “venerating all of their [white nationalists’] key ideological impulses” (264).

In a way, OPWW is a combination of social-media marketing or branding and far-right movements. Its program is a smattering of self-help, pop psychology, financial advice, spirituality, and physical training. There’s also a grift vibe, as Waggener markets himself as the “brand” or aesthetic of this kind of masculinity. But within that program is a vision of masculine domination and violence against a decadent and effeminate society. Many of its core programmatic components fall squarely within the parameters of fascism that Burley sketches in his “25 Theses on Fascism.” As Burley argues in Thesis 25, fascism makes the implicit hierarchies in society explicit, and male supremacist movements explicitly and consciously embrace the patriarchal hierarchies of (in the case of North America) settler-colonial societies which they perceive to be in crisis: “that men’s role over women is deserved, natural, and based on what is lacking in women” (299). Furthermore, Waggener’s groups stoke the idea that masculinity is based on the assertion of the will, including the assertion of the will through violence. As noted in Thesis 17: “fascism seeks to sanctify violence, built directly into their [sic] conception of identity and a correctly hierarchical society” (66).

In Thesis Six, Burley contends that contemporary fascism “is largely built on metapolitics rather than explicit politics. Fascist projects attempt to influence culture, perspectives, and morality as precursors to politics” (62–63). Waggener presents himself, in a manner to be imitated, in an aggressive, hypermasculine style, but the aestheticization goes beyond his own personal brand, beyond the LARPing for which his groups are sometimes ridiculed, to aesthetic choices that embrace symbolism which has already been appropriated by Nazism and white supremacists. Thus this symbolism, which is esoteric enough to allow for plausible deniability, has already been reinterpreted in a way which venerates white supremacist ideology. The most obvious choice is Waggener’s use of the Nordic Black Sun as a symbol of transformation (hence the title of the essay), but Burley also tracks the use of others. He demonstrates, at several points throughout the book, how both white supremacists and male supremacists have drawn on Julius Evola’s traditionalist reinterpretation of “Kali Yuga” (one phase in the Vedic Cycle of Ages) as a contemporary age of decadence: “the current state of Kali Yuga is blamed for ‘modern, liberated women,’ Type II diabetes, and everything in between—all signs that we have lost our true path and an indicator that becoming an Operation Werewolf Operative can set you free” (271).

In addition, he contends that while the ideology of OPWW tones down the explicit white supremacism of the Wolves of Vinland by offering a vision of male supremacist, supposedly ethno-pluralist nationalism for all peoples (in line with Burley’s tenth thesis), white supremacism returns in the mythology peddled by Waggener. This mythology—including a seemingly eclectic collection of Nordic and Vedic symbols—is itself based on a belief that Europeans and much of Hindu South Asia share common ancestry in “mythic Indo-European peoples,” which has “been part and parcel of white supremacist literature,” and which “places a certain amount of white racial ownership over Hinduism” (269). Though white supremacism is sanitized in OPWW, it returns in its mythology. Here Burley is especially effective in showing that male supremacists’ symbolic choices draw their salience from their associations within the broader far-right milieu.

Before concluding, Burley examines feminist approaches to masculinity, including the work of bell hooks and Nora Samaran, in order to suggest antifascist alternatives to male supremacism. Patriarchal concepts of masculinity are characterized by culturally and historically specific values accorded to supposedly immutable natural or biological characteristics, which function to explain away relations of oppression that suffuse patriarchal societies: hardness and immobility are contrasted with the “weaknesses” of vulnerability, adaptability, and care. These characteristics are an ill-fitting ensemble for some men (Burley, in an autobiographical reflection, gives his father as an example). In the male supremacist worldview, this ill fit is explained away as a symptom of weakness, decadence, and effeminacy; it characterizes masculinity as an open embrace of domination and violence. An antifascist worldview offers a transvaluation of masculinity based on building relationships of reciprocity, care, and adaptability. As Burley writes, “if we see masculinity as a proper construct, a cluster of aspirations and traits, then we can reconstruct it the way we see fit—perhaps even beyond masculinity altogether and toward a different kind of person” (304).

Criticism I: Burley on Marxism

At its best, Burley’s work distils the complicated and sometimes contradictory features of fascist movements while advocating for militant antifascism with rigor, clarity, and succinctness. However, there are numerous problems with Burley’s engagement with revolutionary theory—and more specifically, with Marxist approaches to revolutionary theory—and the class composition of fascism.

Some problems involve oversimplification. His analysis of Marx’s essay “The Jewish Question” is one-sided, lacking the kind of nuance found in one of his secondary sources, Enzo Traverso’s The Jewish Question: History of a Marxist Debate (Haymarket, 2019) (241). At one point, he shoehorns Mao’s revolutionary strategy into a dichotomy between riot and strike, neither of which is an appropriate category for protracted people’s war (181). To be fair, the reference to Mao is made in passing, and the discussion of Marx is a programmatic reading which is part of a broader case showing that orthodox leftist approaches to antisemitism are inadequate to the task (a point with which I generally agree).

The chapter “Introduction to Armageddon” contains a more substantial misrepresentation of Marxist theory in general and Clara Zetkin’s work in particular. Burley argues that in our contemporary situation—marked by climate catastrophe, population displacement, and increased economic precarity in advanced capitalist economies—traditional forms of organizing will fail to bring the necessarily, revolutionary changes that can stave off greater catastrophe. He argues that strikes will fail to bring revolutionary changes because a growing number of the dispossessed lack a direct relation to production, hence, they are part of a growing lumpenproletariat. Burley writes:

As automation, the “gig economy,” and economic decline ravage communities that once relied on unionized factories, public employment, and a reliable safety net for stability, the ranks of the lumpenproletariat enlarge. Historically Marxists loathed the lumpenproletariat. Clara Zetkin suggested the “venal lumpens” were ripe for terrorism, a popular notion in Marxist circles that masses unable to sustain themselves through wage labor were personally bankrupt and strategically useless since they lacked the ability to strike. The unemployed, houseless, nomads, Indigenous communities existing outside the economy, subsistence farmers, bohemians, and a range of conflicting and intersecting identities could be labeled as “lumpen” (181).

There is a kernel of truth here surrounded by exaggeration and misrepresentation. It is true that Marxists historically have had an ambivalent attitude toward the lumpenproletariat, which includes fractions that have played an important role in counter-revolutionary movements. It is also true that, in classical Marxist theory, too many disparate groups are categorized as lumpen and dismissed in overly moralistic terms. But the implication here goes far beyond these criticisms; Burley contends that Marxism has little to offer outside of ‘classical’ industrial organizing.

The reference to Zetkin was a clue that led me to read this passage with more attention. Zetkin’s position here isn’t nearly as well known as Marx’s analyses in The Class Struggles in France: 1848–1850 and the Eighteenth Brumaire or Mao’s analyses of class in China from the 1920s, which are more representative in discussions of the lumpenproletariat. Nor is her work substitute for the discussions of Black liberation movements in the 1960s, which drove a critical reconsideration of the orthodox Marxist position on the lumpenproletariat. So, the reference to her work, in the broader scheme of things, is an outlier.[1]

Burley would presumably know Zetkin through her early essays on fascism, some of the earliest to examine fascism as it emerged. Indeed, the reference to “venal lumpens,” as far as I can tell, is drawn from her essay “The Struggle against Fascism” (1923). Knowing this, I figured that her comment isn’t attacking the unemployed, vagabonds, refugees, and others. In context, she argues that antifascists must carry out ideological and political struggle among a variety of social strata, for

Let us not forget that violent fascist gangs are not composed entirely of ruffians of war, mercenaries by choice, and venal lumpens who take pleasure in acts of terror.[2]

In this passage, I presume her audience would think not only of Italian fascisti, but also the Freikorps (who are also discussed by Burley), right-wing paramilitaries who led the reaction against communist revolutionary struggle in Germany. She isn’t arguing that the whole lumpenproletariat is “ripe for terrorism.” Nor does this passage support the remainder of Burley’s argument that Marxists held that the lumpenproletariat were strategically useless because they could not strike. Instead, her contention is that fascism cannot be reduced to a violent lumpen movement, meaning that antifascist organizing must agitate among the other classes before they find common cause within the far right. Furthermore, while the organizations to which Zetkin belonged, the Communist International and KPD (Kommunistische Partei Deutschlands) failed to stem the tide of Nazism, it wasn’t for want of organizing the unemployed. As Nicos Poulantzas observes, the KPD recruited “among the unemployed in enormous numbers after 1930. In 1932, only about 22 per cent of its members were actually in work.”[3] I am unsure who would be representative of the position Burley criticizes—it’s not the relevant reason for Marx or Mao—though I could see how it might apply to some proponents of syndicalism or social democracy.

Criticism II: Fascism and Class

In general, though, Burley’s mishandling of the concept of the lumpenproletariat is part of a broader lack of clarity about class throughout Why We Fight. As he notes in his second thesis on fascism, one of the conditions that enables fascist movements is the “destructive upheaval of class society” (61). In that same thesis, he argues that fascism does not require “a fixed demographic of finance capital,” which I understand to be a critique and rejection of the orthodox (popular front) Marxist position, presented by Dimitrov in 1935 but also later adapted by the Black Panther Party. The BPP’s line states: “Fascism is the open terroristic dictatorship of the most reactionary, most chauvinistic (racist) and the most imperialist elements of finance capital.’[4] On this point we agree. However, I disagree with Burley’s vague and inconsistent definition of fascism as a working-class movement. We could classify his descriptions into three conceptual clusters.

  • Some characterize fascism as having a working class base: “fascists employ the power of marginalized classes” (63); it recruits from “large segments of the working class” (67); the “white nationalist movement” is “known for its working class and rural base” (159).
  • Others explain working-class collaboration with fascism or white supremacy as a protection of interests or privilege: “white supremacy is the autoimmune disease of the working class” (112); fascism is “a mass movement of working people turned against their own interests in a desperate bid to hold onto privilege” (148); “As crisis becomes the new normal, splits will form in the working class, with privileged groups fighting to maintain their menial comforts” (171).
  • Finally, some passages upend his definition: “The Alt Right is white nationalism for the twenty-first century middle class male, and it then creates crossover spaces with Trump Republicans, civic nationalist types, anti-liberal libertarians, and so on” (78).
There are several problems with defining fascism as a working-class movement. First, broad, supposedly common-sense terms like “the elite,” “middle class,” and “working class” are vague and imprecise, especially in advanced capitalist societies such as the United States and Canada. Indeed, in common usage, these ostensibly class categories are also moral appraisals. Thus, even if it were true that fascism is a working-class movement, it would be necessary to offer a critical approach that challenges the biases of paternalistic liberals who view far-right politics as a backwards and atavistic relic of uneducated working-class and rural whites.

A militant antifascist perspective must adhere to more rigorous class categories to counter these biases, and to counter far-right and antisemitic attempts to commandeer anti-elitist sentiment within broader social movements. In my view, Marxist class categories—once they have been critically examined through prisms such as, but not limited to, race and gender—are far more specific than common-sense notions. The working class is, as Bromma notes, “a family of three separate classes”: the proletariat, the worker elite (or, classically, the “labor aristocracy”) and the lumpenproletariat.[5]

  • The proletariat, which makes up a majority of the working class around the globe, includes workers who fall into Engels’ classical definition of the proletariat—“modern wage labourers who, having no means of production of their own, are reduced to selling their labour-power in order to live”—a description which extends far beyond manufacturing, but it can also include unwaged labor (such as housework) and work that is done outside the formal economy, as well as the unemployed. The proletariat lives at or near the level of bare subsistence.
  • The lumpenproletariat is a small part of the working class that exists outside a direct relationship to legal production and distribution, though who is included in the lumpenproletariat remains subject to controversy. Contra Burley, while there are elements of the unemployed, the houseless, or Indigenous peoples who fall into the lumpenproletariat, each group as a whole is not lumpen: the unemployed are part of the proletariat, as would be working houseless people; Indigenous peoples are colonized nations. More typically, especially in discussions of fascism, the lumpen of concern are white supremacist gangs, ex-soldiers, and professional mercenaries.
  • The worker elite exists between the bourgeoisie and proletariat; it is more accurately part of the “middle class.” Bromma contends that the worker elite cannot be distinguished as skilled versus unskilled labor nor merely by a certain level of income. Instead, holistically speaking, the worker elite receives (a) privileged standard of living (in terms of both income and social benefits), and (b) some degree of access to the political system; (c) it is positioned on the side of power in relation to existing fault lines of social struggle (for example, in the US, typically the worker elite is white when we consider racial fault lines, men when it comes to gender, they have thrown their support behind American imperialism, etc.); and (d) it receives systemic and durable privileges, built into the social fabric.[6]

With these definitions in mind, the class composition of fascism will become clearer (with the caveat that there remains some degree of simplification in this presentation). We must observe, first, that the presence of some elements of a given class does not mean that a particular class drives insurgent far-right movements. That there are lumpen elements in an ideology that venerates violence is beyond controversy. The assumption that in order to ascend to power there must be some degree of collaboration between fascist movements and fractions of the bourgeoisie contributes to our understanding of how fascist movements might exploit factionalism with the bourgeoisie. However, in my view, neither of these factors explain the class character and potential mass base of insurgent far-right and fascist movements.

Revisiting Burley’s analyses, then, our first question is: which remaining section of the working class offers a potential mass base for fascism? According to the definitions I proposed above, his references to the “working class” refer more specifically to the worker elite. As I have already noted, the presence of white proletarians doesn’t mean that fascism is a proletarian movement—it is generally accepted, if we maintain definitions of class along the lines suggested by Bromma and others, that the majority of proletarians in North America are women and/or workers of color, and these groups are the targets of far-right violence and not its social base. Thus, while it is imprecise to categorize fascism as drawing on “marginalized classes,” Burley would be correct to observe that those elements of the workers elite that join far right movements do so to defend their social and class privileges, and this brings them into conflict with other parts of the working classes.

There is one more twist, however. In The Anatomy of Fascism, liberal historian Robert Paxton examines the class composition of fascist movements and concludes that working class participation was proportionally lower than other sections of society, because “those already deeply engaged, from generation to generation, in the rich subculture of socialism, with its clubs, newspapers, unions, and rallies, were simply not available for another loyalty.”[7] Now, the North American worker elite is hardly engaged with a “rich subculture of socialism,” but some sections of this class do have unions. Without downplaying how worker elites and their unions and organizations have historically participated in preserving ‘social peace’ within capitalism—in Burley’s terms, preserving the “implicit” social and economic hierarchies in class society—we could also expect that the participation of worker elites in unions or cultures of solidarity offers a point of resistance against far-right’s explicit desiderata. Nonetheless, we must also acknowledge the potential mass base available through the worker elite who either lack unions or are openly anti-union.

Burley’s most succinct encapsulation of twenty-first century fascism is his identification of the “middle-class” character of its momentary “vanguard” at the time, the Alt Right (78). In my view, it is disaffected elements of both the worker elite and the petty bourgeoisie—two factions of this “middle class”—who are driving contemporary far-right movements; they play a role in ideological leadership and the potential mass base. The leading figures of Alt Right, for example, not only pursued post-secondary education but also adopted metapolitical strategies and arguments from the European New Right. Groups associated with the white identitarian movement sought—and still seek—to recruit members on college campuses and universities. As for the potential mass base, according to Robert A. Pape’s analysis of 377 people arrested for charges related to the January 6th Capitol putsch, 44 percent were either business owners or white-collar workers. (We should be circumspect with this data, however; according to Pape, 87 percent of those arrested were unaffiliated with far-right groups).[8]

In classical Marxist theory, the petty bourgeoisie was bound to disappear into the proletariat. As Marx and Engels argue in The Communist Manifesto, small capitalists or the petty bourgeoisie sink into the proletariat “because their diminutive capital does not suffice for the scale on which Modern Industry is carried.” This “classical” statement has seemingly justified lumping various classes under the rubric of the working class, since, the logic goes, Marx and Engels predicted the disappearance of the petty bourgeoisie more than one hundred and fifty years ago, so by now one must be either bourgeois or proletarian (the one percent or the ninety-nine percent, as one leftist argot has it). By contrast, as Rosa Luxemburg shows, the disappearance of the petty bourgeoisie does not proceed in a linear fashion; the fate of the petty bourgeoisie is subject to contradictions and thus must be handled dialectically. Hence, small capitalists serve a concrete role in capitalist development: “they initiate new methods of production in well-established branches of industry; they are instrumental in the creation of new branches of production not yet exploited by the big capitalist.”[9] The small capitalist exists in the interstices of big capital until their diminutive capital no longer suffices to stay competitive within an increasing scale of production, and this cycle appears as “a periodic mowing down of small enterprises, which rapidly grow up again, only to be mowed down once more by large industry.”[10]

The petty bourgeoisie and the worker elite occupy different places within capitalist modes of production. Like the worker elite, though, the petty bourgeoisie has typically allied with whiteness when confronted with antiracist struggle; it has allied with patriarchy when confronted with women’s struggle. It has invested in American imperialism because American imperialism served its own interests. And the petty bourgeoisie, since it is composed of owners of capital, has received similar if not superior systemic and durable social privileges as the worker elite. Despite these differences, both classes occupy an especially unstable economic position in an economy governed by neoliberal policy and subject to crisis, which endangers their class status. And, despite their differences, these two classes adopt the same ideological maneuvers, presenting themselves as producers, patriots, citizens, or ‘the people,’ at the same time benefiting from class, racial, and gender oppression, and—in settler colonial societies such as ours—ongoing Indigenous dispossession. The far right’s metapolitics, so aptly chronicled by Burley’s analyses, attempts to modulate this ideological language around the explicit embrace of the implicit hierarchies that the middle classes—the white middle classes—have historically fortified.

Conclusion

The purpose of class analysis is to illuminate the potential social bases and class tendencies of far-right movements. I believe it that this type of analysis can help antifascists glean insight into far-right organizational forms and their potential weaknesses. I do not believe that class categories should be mechanically and uncritically applied to these movements, or else we risk falling back into dogmatic positions similar to those advanced by orthodox Marxists or paternalistic liberals. We must not forget that fascist ideology—documented extensively throughout Why We Fight—has an appeal which, while it typically draws white supremacist racial color lines, is able to cut across class divisions, and sometimes its presumed racial and gender lines.

Class analysis also demands that we keep our perspective trained on systemic features of our society, including capitalist class domination. A three-way fight approach must maintain a revolutionary, anticapitalist, egalitarian horizon. The ills of society are not, as liberals have it, merely attributable to bad actors and necessarily imperfect but reformable institutions; nor are they, as the far-right would have it, the product of secret cabals (often expressed in antisemitic conspiracies). We must continue to build a revolutionary, antifascist theory and praxis that stops fascists in the streets, but which also aims to overthrow the conditions which make fascism possible. Shane Burley’s Why We Fight is an important contribution to answering the question: where do we go next?

Notes

1. See also J. Sakai, The “Dangerous Class” and Revolutionary Theory: Thoughts on the Making of the Lumpen/proletariat (Montreal: Kersplebedeb, 2017).

2. Clara Zetkin, Fighting Fascism: How to Struggle and How to Win, edited by John Riddell and Mike Taber (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2017), 60.

3. Nicos Poulantzas, Fascism and Dictatorship: The Third International and the Problem of Fascism, translated by Judith White (London: Verso, 1979), 181.

4. The Black Panther Party, “Call for a United Front against Fascism,” in The U.S. Antifascism Reader, edited by Bill V. Mullen and Christopher Vials (London: Verso, 2020), 269. The Black Panther Party add the parenthesis “(racist)” to Dimitrov’s formulation.

5. Bromma, The Worker Elite: Notes on the “Labor Aristocracy” (Montreal: Kersplebedeb, 2014), 4.

6. Bromma, The Worker Elite, 19–21.

7. Robert O. Paxton, The Anatomy of Fascism (New York: Vintage, 2004), 50.

8. See Robert A. Pape and Chicago Project on Security and Threats, “Understanding American Domestic Terrorism: Mobilization Potential and Risk Factors of a New Threat Trajectory,” Division of the Social Sciences, University of Chicago, April 6, 2021.

9. Rosa Luxemburg, Reform or Revolution? (Paris: Foreign Languages Press, 2020), 17.

10. Luxemburg, Reform of Revolution?, 18.

Oct 30, 2021

It's Going Down: Paul O’Banion On The Changing Terrain Of The Far-Right, Antifascism, And Community Self-Defense



We are reposting the recent interview the good people at It's Going Down did with our friend, comrade and recent contributor to 3WF, Paul O'Banion.

from IGD,

Long-time anarchist and antifascist organizer Paul O’Banion joins It’s Going Down to discuss how the struggle against the far-Right and fascism must evolve and grow into a broader political struggle beyond (just) street confrontations in order to push back against the growing reactionary and white supremacist forces we face today.

During our conversation, we discuss the rise of the fascist current within the anti-vaxx movement, collusion between the Proud Boys and the police, and lessons from the antifascist struggle in the Pacific Northwest.

 



for more on the discussion of A22 PDX and the lessons check it : 

Oct 23, 2021

A Diversity of Tactics is Not Enough; We Need Rules of Engagement

The following is part of a series of responses to the events of August 22, 2001 (A22) in Portland, Oregon. We support any and all genuine and honest discussion that is of use to our movements regardless of whether we agree with what is raised and put forward. We also understand that real debate can be sharp and at times raw. We will attempt to be conscious of this and as stated previously, a fundamental part of our guidelines are based on 

principled responses, not personal attacks or sectarian squabbles (or, for that matter, uncritical boosterism). We also ask that submissions take into consideration issues of movement security, remembering that both the fascists and the state will be searching for faultiness to divide our movements.  

We appreciate the responses we have received and look forward to those others working to contribute to this discussion. – 3WF

A Diversity of Tactics is Not Enough; We Need Rules of Engagement

by Peter Little

PDX 2020. Photo by Nathan Howard/Getty Images. Use for educational purposes only.

Portland has become a focal point for far-right groupings around the United States. The ongoing mobilizations against far-right activities in the city are vital and deserve support. The countermobilization in response to a Proud Boy rally on August 22nd had inspiring and positive elements, but were overwhelmed by developments which reflect underlying ideological and practical weaknesses within the antifascist movement. We need deeper critical reflection on the questions raised if the movement is to avoid being undermined by repeating mistakes of previous generations of antifascists.

Events of August 22nd raised questions of security, the relationship between front-liners and a mass base, and the need for accountability and discipline, particularly when it comes to the application of force in combating fascism.

For those of us who have lived through previous upsurges, the nascent antifascist movement and the concurrent rise of militance in defense of black lives have overcome stale and moralistic debates about pacifism. The abandonment of pacifism as an overriding strategic framework is an encouraging development but also poses risks, though not those which most worry pacificists. The movement’s emphasis on direct action and its distance from the electoral system are also significant in its radical potential. These emerging capacities for physically confronting fascist threats needs to be matched by a framework for moderating, holding accountable, and disciplining the use of force.

We must also acknowledge the limits of force in countering fascism. Absent a collective evaluation of the risks posed, the development of organizational forms to facilitate these capacities will exert unseen influences on the internal culture and politics of the movement, and will exacerbate already existing tensions between front line groupings and the mass movement itself. An examination of the compromises inherent in a move to armed defense is central to working out how to navigate tensions between the needs and interests of front liners and the mass movement which is foundational to radical antifascism and its most radical potentials.

Absent a collective evaluation of the risks posed, the development of organizational forms to facilitate these capacities will exert unseen influences on the internal culture and politics of the movement, and will exacerbate already existing tensions between front line groupings and the mass movement itself.

What are the limits to acceptable violence? Who determines them? How are they enforced? These questions are strategically, politically, and ethically important for how their answers impact the movement’s ongoing potential. They point towards well-worn but still inadequately addressed questions about the compromises political movements are forced to embrace in militarized conflicts where open, direct, and participatory democracy exist in tension with the repressive pressures that limit their viability. Our history is tragically riddled with mistakes on both sides of this continuum, and we don’t have to look far to see examples where decisions made under duress end up undermining the most liberatory potentials of our movements.

Our Enemies, and Us

The antifascist movement’s opponents in both the security apparatus and in the fascist movement will not be hindered by the ethical constraints that rightly limit the range of options for the antifascist movement itself. The compromises our movements are forced to make can so quickly begin to undermine their most liberatory potentials. Our attitude toward violence and the limits we place on it are part of what define us, and differentiate us from our enemies.

PDX 2020. Photo by Nathan Howard/Getty Images. Use for educational purposes only.


The state has immense resources for repression and will employ layers of measures in an attempt to marginalize and disempower the most radical elements of the antifascist movement. Overt repression criminalizing the movement, outright violence such as the police murder of Michael Reinholdt, or collaboration with the far right may be the most easily identified forms of repression, but these initiatives always risk discrediting the organizations utilizing them if they are exposed. The security apparatuses would prefer to weaponize weaknesses within the movement, hoping to fragment and discredit it, and will attempt to employ all of the above methods in a strategic orientation that pushes the political basis for the antifascist movement into a malleable and reformist direction, thereby diminishing its most radical potentials.

The security apparatuses would prefer to weaponize weaknesses within the movement, hoping to fragment and discredit it, and will attempt to employ all of the above methods in a strategic orientation that pushes the political basis for the antifascist movement into a malleable and reformist direction, thereby diminishing its most radical potentials.

The far-right embraces hierarchy and inequality as reflective of a natural order. So, it lacks a humanistic ethic, and this removes restraint on questions of violence and force. Many camps extend this to an embrace of violence and terror. The left cannot do the same without abandoning the liberatory ideals which motivate us. Though global capitalism and the states whose apparatuses maintain it will be forced oppose fascist movements as threats to the existing order, the radical antifascist movement is unlikely to enjoy the kind of cover that the far right sometimes receives from the security forces.

PDX 2020. Photo by Nathan Howard/Getty Images. Use for educational purposes only.


All of this means that pending victory, we have to assume we will be physically and militarily out-resourced by our opponents. Given this, the struggle over popular support and to win significant sectors of society to sympathize with antifascism is essential. This means cultivating a base whom, though not fighters, sympathize with, support, and provide cover for the antifascist movement. This extends through a range of relations between militants and the larger base. Besides needing significant numbers of people willing to take risks confronting fascists in the streets, we also need those devoted to making repression of the movement by the state or fascists prohibitively costly, and other working to cultivate a mass culture of antifascism that is more appealing than the fascists in its prefigurative aspects.


Strategic Assessments

This full-spectrum strategy requires evaluating our activity not just by its immediate impact on fascists in the street, but by how well it expands the base of support for the movement, while discrediting the enemy. We don’t win by force alone: an important element of what makes victory possible in the face of such odds is our ability to credibly act in ways more appealing, trustworthy, and worthy of support than the better equipped and resourced enemies we confront.

Defeating fascism will require the dismantling of the system that creates its potentials. The base of the US fascist movement is largely composed of a combination of struggling small businessmen alongside some number working class people who see their material conditions and their limited privileges eroding under the pressures of a faltering system. Though in places the fascist movement may receive some forms of support from elements of the capitalist class and its security apparatus, it has to be understood as an oppositional byproduct of Capitalist relations themselves. For every fascist who is chased off the streets, global capitalism is creating the potentials for many more. Repressing fascists will not defeat them, as the social relations that produced them will continue to provide the experiences and viewpoints which are fertile ground for fascist ideology. While its supporters may be motivated by ‘hate,’ or ‘backwards ideas,' these ideas are also an expression of a perceived collective interest within a capitalist framework. A revolutionary anticapitalist alternative must develop a radical politic that can compete with and win the sympathies of those drawn to fascism, and must orient its priorities appropriately.

Repressing fascists will not defeat them, as the social relations that produced them will continue to provide the experiences and viewpoints which are fertile ground for fascist ideology. While its supporters may be motivated by ‘hate,’ or ‘backwards ideas,' these ideas are also an expression of a perceived collective interest within a capitalist framework. A revolutionary anticapitalist alternative must develop a radical politic that can compete with and win the sympathies of those drawn to fascism, and must orient its priorities appropriately.

Acknowledging that we will likely be outgunned, out macho’d, and possibly even outnumbered by our enemies should not diminish the importance of developing a capacity to confront fascist threats or to defend communities: this is essential. And though there are no road maps for producing the concrete linkages between antifascism and a potential anticapitalist block, the mutual aid projects that have emerged in response to the fires and heatwaves in Oregon all offer encouraging hints of these possibilities. As pointed out by Garrison Davis and Robert Evans, the far right in Oregon enacted roadblocks and restrictions on movement and menaced journalists trying to report on events during the natural disasters of the last year, while the antifascist movement provided shelter, food, and direct support to those most impacted by these events. As indicated by far-right ‘mutual aid’ responses to disasters in the Southern United States more recently however, we can’t assume they will continue to act so stupidly.

In contrast to deepening a mass movement, events on Aug 22nd hint towards a trajectory of vanguard vs vanguard, with the mass movement increasingly sidelined by front-liner actions which prioritize the fighters and their objectives over the development of a militant, mass participatory base confronting the fascist threat. If fascism is a semi-autonomous right wing social movement, it needs to be countered by a left-wing social movement. The struggle against fascism cannot be reduced to a series of tactics or technologies. We don't want a “standing army” of tactical specialists. We want a mass in motion, consisting of all the people willing to take those steps, with various levels of commitment and engagement. The contributions of those who for whatever reasons are not front-liners are as important as the activity of the front-liners themselves.

A World We Want to Live In, and How We Get There Matters

One notable aspect of Aug 22nd was that before the event, police and the city publicly abdicated responsibility for maintaining order. They were nonetheless present, and demonstrated the limits of their noninterventionist policies when an undercover officer emerged from the black bloc to make an arrest after a shoot-out downtown. This public retreat may reflect confidence in their ability to influence events from within the movement, and this likelihood further raises the importance of a set of agreed principles, of limits to violence, as well as accountability and discipline for all participants.

The partial withdrawal of state forces left open a particular hint of revolutionary possibilities — dual power. In such moments, our actions are important not only in accomplishing their immediate objectives of chasing fascists off the street, but as a demonstration of the politics and world we hope to see. Call it optics, call it realpolitik, but this matters immensely.

Popular support cannot be the sole metric for assessing the viability of an approach, but we cannot afford to ignore the multiple accounts from Aug 22nd where sympathizers who came down to support the action, accidental passersby, and workers in the neighborhood were questioned or felt menaced by black bloc. In one instance Chevron workers called police saying people were fighting with fireworks in their pumping station, causing them to worry about the dangers to the neighborhood of a potential gas explosion. (Police declined to respond.)

All of this points again towards questions as to the limits and potential costs of violence within the movement. Who are militants accountable to? How do the front liners maintain accountability to the movement as a whole? What will happen when disagreements within the movement begin to be resolved with force? How can individuals representing the movement be held accountable for actions like the attack on journalist Maranie Staab, without handing them to our enemies or embracing a punitive model of justice? But more importantly, how can these types of mistakes be identified and prevented in the future.

Violence and Authority

Violence, whatever the motives behind it, is a means for imposing one's will on another human being, or group. This is an immutable reality, and one that idealistic slogans about opposing hierarchy and authority will not resolve. The antifascist movement must acknowledge this reality, and that some of its actions are a form of repression. Even if justified or necessary, there must be restraints and checks on the forces engaged in such repressive action. This includes accountability for the actions of front-liners, including an honest evaluation of and ownership for mistakes. It will not be easy to do this without exposing our fighters to additional risks, and it will not be easy to work out, given the multitude of forces looking to divide, fracture, or harm the movement — but methods that balance these concerns will have to be worked out.

Without clear agreements about the limits to the use of force, any group with a repressive capacity will tend them to exert an outsized influence within the movement. Anarchism and antiauthoritarianism are not exempt from these realities. The elevation of military tactics over a political strategy risk discrediting the movement as well as degrading democracy within it. It exposes openings for state actors to discredit the movement, stir conflicts between comrades, and breed divisions which destroy the movement. It also risks the isolation and abandonment of front-liners by the larger movement.

Tactical Realities and Political Implications

In moments of physical confrontation, conceptions of direct democracy, autonomy, and opposition to hierarchy will run up against real-world constraints. As acknowledged in this post action evaluation —Understanding A22 PDX: discussion and analysis for the antifascist movements — on August 22, there was no capacity to collectively decide how to respond to the change in location announced by the far-right organizers, in the end splitting the crowd and leading to the embarrassing scene that unfolded in Parkrose.

This is not an argument against democracy, but that people's common sense conceptions of how to function democratically under such conditions are now running up against the realities of work which requires both clandestinity and coordination of small groups with masses of supporters. Sweeping these questions under the rug with simplistic anti-authoritarian rhetoric does not resolve them — and continuing without grappling with these questions will lead to more of the kinds of setbacks we saw on Aug 22nd. This lack of discipline and coordination leaves the ground open to the kinds of debacles where an outnumbered group of antifascists march head on into defeat and members of the black bloc assault journalists or irritating but insignificant bystanders while Proud Boys attack antifascists only a block or so away.

At Parkrose, independent journalist Maranie Staub was filming the black bloc, and continued to do so after being asked to stop. When she continued to film, her phone was taken from her, and when she responded by confronting those who took her phone, she was thrown to the ground and harangued with misogynistic epithets.

This response to the security threats posed by her insistence on recording may be useful in examining some of the questions I’ve hoped to raise in this essay.

The attack on Maranie Staab has been defended as legitimate given her possible relationships with antagonistic independent journalists and the dangers of her exposing antifascists. But did it actually make anyone safer?

The response to Staab drew attention away from where Proud Boys were actively attacking demonstrators, exposed people to potential criminal charges, and attracted many more journalists with cameras. This was tactically self-defeating, and even if justified by another rubric, it can't be justified on security grounds.

Furthermore, it is worth acknowledging that undercover officers were present and in black bloc that day, and likely had their own unseen cameras — not to mention the other cameras belonging to cops, journalists, fascists, or bystanders, which one can assume were present but out of sight. Good security cannot be predicated on the assumption that we can stop other social forces from predictably exercising their own agency.

Good movement security cannot be reduced to a series of tactics or technologies. Its core is a collective capacity to analyze threats and evaluate the costs and benefits of approaches to mitigating them. This requires accountability from all participants in implementing agreed solutions, and also includes accountability for the actions of the front liners to the rest of the movement, including an honest evaluation, acknowledgement of mistakes, and a collective discipline capable of preventing their repetition. This kind of discipline cannot mean limiting debate or criticism: its healthy application actually requires encouraging a framework where a diversity of ideas and approaches are encouraged for consideration. It does mean developing methods for holding the different components of the movement (whether individuals or groupings) accountable to a set of collective principles and strategies.

State and fascist repression will of course complicate this process, and throwing comrades with poor judgement or who make mistakes to our enemies will degrade trust and cohesion within the movement. Accountability and relative transparency will have to navigate this tension carefully, and there are no easy answers. Broadly, we can say that we need to find ways to subordinate the military aspects of the struggle to the political. That requires a tactical command structure that operates in the context of a horizontal political culture — autonomy and freedom in politics, but discipline within the organizations responsible for implementing strategy.

Peter Little is long time street-level anti-fascist – and is probably guilty of many of the mistakes and excesses that are criticized here.

Related posts:

Understanding A22 PDX: discussion and analysis for the antifascist movements

Understanding A22 PDX: Three Responses

Understanding A22 PDX: Never Let the Nazis Have the Story! The Narrative Aspect of Conflict

Understanding A22 PDX: Broader implications for militant movements

Understanding A22 PDX: Response from a Comrade, "We Go Where They Go" as strategy for militant antifascism

There Will Always Be More Of Us: Antifascist Organizing

It was no Harpers Ferry: August 22d wasn’t an accident, it was a product of our thinking

Understanding A22 PDX: The Scraps

Oct 13, 2021

It was no Harpers Ferry: August 22d wasn’t an accident, it was a product of our thinking

The following is part of a series of responses to the events of August 22, 2001 (A22) in Portland, Oregon. We support any and all genuine and honest discussion that is of use to our movements regardless of whether we agree with what is raised and put forward. We also understand that real debate can be sharp and at times raw. We will attempt to be conscious of this and as stated previously, a fundamental part of our guidelines are based on 

principled responses, not personal attacks or sectarian squabbles (or, for that matter, uncritical boosterism). We also ask that submissions take into consideration issues of movement security, remembering that both the fascists and the state will be searching for faultiness to divide our movements.  

We appreciate the responses we have received and look forward to those others working to contribute to this discussion. – 3WF


It was no Harpers Ferry: August 22d wasn’t an accident, it was a product of our thinking

by Iain W


I stood in a crowd of white men, blending in seamlessly. I was just another white man. The moment of hostility came when I failed to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, failed to take off my hat, and didn't put my hand over my heart. I hadn't chosen to out myself, it's just that it never occurred to be to participate in that particular performance.  It was April 15, 2009, and I was checking out a Tea Party Rally in Downtown Portland.
 

Past the dwindling Nazi Bonehead sets, this city was leftist property. So, it was mostly a curiosity to see so many Republicans in one place.

There were several features that haunt me from that day. There were more Carhartts then khakis in the crowd, and younger people included, some wearing the Guy Fawkes mask, a sure sign of political incoherence. From the stage the speakers had no real problem calling for armed revolt and bloodletting, watering the tree of liberty and such. The GOP had no problem with the rhetoric, signing up voters for the next midterms: the GOP has always been a good deal more radical then the Democrats. The Koch brothers produced signs they carried had the slogan “runaway taxes + huge government = SLAVERY”. The "slavery" was in bold type, and from a distance all you saw was a bunch of white men carrying a sign that said "slavery." Obama as The Joker would come along a bit later.  

I recall thinking, not at that time, but in the year or so that followed, that no one seemed to be confronting the Tea Party, with its barely coded white supremacy and expression of an actual mass participatory base. It felt like a void, waiting to be filled, but the pushback never materialized. It was a missed opportunity. That same yawning chasm would open up just a few years later with Trump, but the void would be filled with the far left, most specifically by existing anarchist and communist cadre/affinity groups, to become known broadly as "ANTIFA" in the press. In some ways, ANTIFA is a trap, a narrowing of the scope of concern or proactive solutions for hundreds of millions of people wallowing in the wreckage of late capitalism. Antifascism requires fascism for meaning, and cannot help but sweep such limitations into its scope. 

But back in 2009, most of us saw only the theoretical possibility of the Tea Party slipping its libertarian corporate masters, and asserting itself as a nominally autonomous social force. We, my political collectivity included, were mostly still fighting the last war, against the remnants of the Nazi bonehead crews. 

The shadow war that took place in the decades before the current era was mostly one over counter-cultural social spaces, and territory within urban centers. This is where most the ARA tactics that got folded into ANTIFA, the "we go where they go" and "no platforming" developed. In those times most the work was physical confrontation and street level violence, undermining of Nazi and white supremacist public events and organizing, and doxing before doxing was called doxing.

What this was, was political repression — of course. We actively repressed our enemies. And the constituency for the war against the far right was the counter-cultural punk scene. In a few places, because of good work, thoughtful organizing, and decent politics, that broke past the punk scene, and incorporated broader social layers into the fight against the fascists. But by and large, aside from salacious TV shows, that war was off the national radar. Nazis and conscious white supremacists were just as marginalized as the far left confronting them. Official society didn't have much use for either of us, contrary to our shared assumptions about each other.

When Donald Trump came along, he lit the fuse to the powder keg that the elites had been packing since the 2008 capitalist collapse. And things started moving, well, rather quickly. A toxic brew of the far-right started bubbling away, 3%ers, Patriot Prayer, the Proud Boys, Spencer's Nazi's, and a grab bag of other forces contended for Trump's coattails. By and large, the Nazis and overt white nationalists lost this struggle, both within the rightist coalition, and through persecution, from the state and from the left. But the remainder is perhaps more dangerous, and a graver threat to the left and marginalized groups, not so much for its overt virulence, but its reach and potential popular grassroots support.

In typical liberal fashion, the progressive establishment had no answer for the rise of a far-right as an actual movement organizing in the streets. But the far-left stepped into that role, and suddenly became a social force with recognition on a national, if not international level. This was, and continues to be, a fundamental transformation of the political conversation in society, and a profound opportunity. To a large degree, I think we have squandered it, and are being out-maneuvered by reactionary forces. 

In typical liberal fashion, the progressive establishment had no answer for the rise of a far-right as an actual movement organizing in the streets. But the far-left stepped into that role, and suddenly became a social force with recognition on a national, if not international level. This was, and continues to be, a fundamental transformation of the political conversation in society, and a profound opportunity. To a large degree, I think we have squandered it, and are being out-maneuvered by reactionary forces.
I think most of our shortcomings lie in our fidelity to the frameworks that got built over the last several decades in confronting the far-right, and how they fail to scale up to today's moment. There seems to be little conversation about the implications of the new terrain we occupy, just attempts to reapply inherited tactics built in a different era. 

Our first shaky foundation is "No platforming," the notion that some perspectives are simply too abhorrent to allow public space, and must be repressed. It relies ultimately on a social sanction from the wider community; it demands that a side be taken, and precludes any debate of ideas. What this requires is that social intuitions, the music clubs, the media outlets, the universities, and people in control of physical spaces and infrastructure agree to where this line is. If they fail to pick our side, they have to pay a public price, and maybe some insurance deductibles as well.      

When "we go where they go" got coined, there were not several quality digital cameras on most commercial buildings. Most people did not have a video camera in their pocket. The media was composed of professionals working for slow-footed corporate newsrooms, and did not cover the beat down of a few peckerwoods at the local bar. It was a strategy of relentless pressure on the social spaces Nazis tried to cultivate and infiltrate. We do not live in that world today. When we went where they went, chances were it would not end up in court. 

When we think about the community we had been accountable to, it was us, the far-left, mostly a counter-cultural nexus composed of a few hundred to a few thousand people in most urban centers across the country. We had a rather high degree of shared values, on paper at any rate. Even here, disagreements are sharp, and propel us towards unending schism while we cancel each other — sometimes for heinous behavior, sometimes over petty sectarian beefs, often for a refusal to extend any good faith or mutual humility towards each other. But through most of it we all could get on board together for smashing Nazis. 

Today, many of the dynamics that constructed the tactics we follow are gone. Surveillance is everywhere. The media system has been shattered into thousands of little shards. The internet makes new ways to communicate and share information, and algorithms sit above it all, gathering information for whoever can afford to buy it. The social forces operating today on all sides have exploded past the rather narrow parameters we operated in for the last several decades. The entire world has shifted under us, and we have played a role in it. But our categories and understandings that inform our tactics are pretty stubborn things, and we should ask if we cling to them to explain the world to ourselves, or just to explain ourselves to each other.  

It feels like we are attempting to shove the new world back into the old one. Black Bloc attacks the media, even small-time stringers who may be sympathetic. It attacks passers-by that may have the gall to film a few hundred people blocked up in the middle of a downtown core, in the middle of the day. The bloc demands no one record or film them, when every person has a video camera in their pocket, and a platform to share content with millions of people around the world almost instantly. Does one imagine this is a winning, or even a feasible strategy? And what is the outcome of such approaches? 

We should be clear: this is repression of the press, and even of the general public. It's not a flattering feature, and it's more than a PR problem.  It's a question of how power operates, and what we do with ours. There may be a rational kernel behind it, but it opens up another set of questions, and has implications for the sort of confidences we might prefer people have in us. If we subordinate other people's freedoms for our security, there’s little chance to win society over to a liberatory project through our pathways. More than likely, people will find the public repressive display alienating and repulsive. The marginal security that is gained from attacking the press and the public costs incalculable credibility with society.  

As to the second cornerstone of Antifa, "We Go Where They Go" has increasingly become its opposite. We don't "go where they go," because we have no organized presence in the places they go, and no plan or capacity to build that. Right now the Proud Boys have no end of social space to occupy in the exurbs. Nor is it very likely that the owners of the bars would give two shits about an attempt at cancellation. They would use it as a marketing strategy, emboldening and empowering reaction.   So, we are left with fights in the urban cores that we are used to defending, and "going where they go" is really them coming to where we are. On August 22nd this was clear as could be, when a small group of people perhaps too literally applied the slogan.

As to the second cornerstone of Antifa, "We Go Where They Go" has increasingly become its opposite. We don't "go where they go," because we have no organized presence in the places they go, and no plan or capacity to build that.
When we look at no platforming, it is often the act of no platforming that constructs the very platform reactionaries stand on. This is what the current debate about cancel culture is, and I believe the right is winning there. Jordan Peterson is a great example. He would still be an obscure professor in Canada, teaching esoteric Jungian garbage to a handful of zoned out Canadians had he not seen the opportunity to build a brand on the "illiberal" left. His ideas have strength mostly because we won't be bothered to push them over, as doing so would only legitimize him, so the thinking goes. But here we miss the point.

It's not always clear where one puts the marker down for a refusal to debate ideas we find abhorrent. When fascism is clear cut, it's easy to repress it. But what about ideas that tens or even hundreds of millions of people hold as "common sense"? Do we imagine that we will repress those millions of people into accepting our notions of how the world is organized? Because if you don't work to confront reactionary ideas that have been broadly perpetrated as common sense through argument and discussion, what's our other option, besides, you know, defeat? 

Our notions of the social base of fascists often fails to recognize the disparate and contradictory elements within the broader milieu of far-right organizing, at times pushing forces together we should be looking to tear apart. We point at a truck carrying a black man, a pacific islander, and a woman shooting paintballs at leftists and call them white supremacists. Fascism is a dynamic force that we try to fit into static categories at our peril. They are making a play to cohere a new broad base, while we narrow ours to "people we can trust." Any study of revolution will show a dizzying array of mind-bending coalitions and temporary alliances so deep with contradictions and betrayals that any solid ground we find ourselves on should be foremost taken as illusion.  

Such observations must be made with humility, but I have little doubt that we are moving into even sharper times, where millions and millions of people will be drawn into a struggle to survive. We should not be deterministic about where people will jump based on our own categories, be they gendered, racial or class-informed. These are abstractions developed in a certain time, and must constantly be reassessed through acute awareness and curiosity, not simply replicated through confirmation bias. Our goal must be to build structures that can encompass the desires and dreams of hundreds of millions of people, to split the mass base away from systems of hierarchy towards egalitarian liberty and human solidarity.

I have little doubt that we are moving into even sharper times, where millions and millions of people will be drawn into a struggle to survive. We should not be deterministic about where people will jump based on our own categories, be they gendered, racial or class-informed. These are abstractions developed in a certain time, and must constantly be reassessed through acute awareness and curiosity, not simply replicated through confirmation bias. Our goal must be to build structures that can encompass the desires and dreams of hundreds of millions of people, to split the mass base away from systems of hierarchy towards egalitarian liberty and human solidarity.
We will need to be more thoughtful towards showing people a world we want to build, a more open hand than closed fist. This is not an argument against political repression, or for pacifism. There should be no doubt violence and political repression will be elements to what's ahead. Fascists should be smashed, but it does not always need to be a public spectacle, and may be more effective, and safer when it’s not. Such a context does require narrow participation, high levels of security, but it bumps less up against the perhaps greater need for mass participatory activity — not only against fascism, but for a different world. It requires less collateral repression of media actors and the general public.  And when it is the repression of fascists is a public spectacle, the concern should be in decisive victories that enjoy popular support.

Iain W is a part-time leftist who lives in Portland, OR and occasionally tries to be useful.

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Understanding A22 PDX: Three Responses

Understanding A22 PDX: Never Let the Nazis Have the Story! The Narrative Aspect of Conflict

Understanding A22 PDX: Broader implications for militant movements

Understanding A22 PDX: Response from a Comrade, "We Go Where They Go" as strategy for militant antifascism

There Will Always Be More Of Us: Antifascist Organizing

A Diversity of Tactics is Not Enough: We Need Rules of Engagement

Understanding A22 PDX: The Scraps