Dec 18, 2017

Fascism Today Conversation Part 1: Interview with author Shane Burley

Cover of book Fascism Today: What It Is and How to End It
In this post I interview Shane Burley about his new book, Fascism Today: What It Is and How to End It, to which I was honored to write the foreword. Publisher AK Press describes the book this way:
Fascism Today looks at the changing world of the far right in Donald Trump’s America. Examining the modern fascist movement’s various strains, Shane Burley has written an accessible primer about what its adherents believe, how they organize, and what future they have in the United States. The ascension of Trump has introduced a whole new vocabulary into our political lexicon—white nationalism, race realism, Identitarianism, and a slew of others. Burley breaks it all down. From the tech-savvy trolls of the alt-right to esoteric Aryan mystics, from full-fledged Nazis to well-groomed neofascists like Richard Spencer, he shows how these racists and authoritarians have reinvented themselves in order to recruit new members and grow.

“Just as importantly, Fascism Today shows how they can be fought and beaten. It highlights groups that have successfully opposed these twisted forces and outlines the elements needed to build powerful mass movements to confront the institutionalization of fascist ideas, protect marginalized communities, and ultimately stop the fascist threat.”
Lyons: Fascism Today packs in a lot of detail about a lot of different political organizations and scenes and individuals. How did you go about doing the research for this book and how long did it take you?

Burley: I would have to say it took me seven years, but that is not when formal research began. Instead, this was me trying to grasp a change that was happening. Back in 2010, there was a flurry of far-right activity happening in Upstate New York, where I was living. At this point the insurgent right-wing movement close to the GOP was the Tea Party, using weaponized Americana to push for aggressive libertarian economics and traditionalist conservatism similar to the evangelical “Moral Majority.” At the same time, there was a dissident movement growing on the edges of paleoconservatism, libertarianism, and other fragments of those to the right of the seemingly “orthodox” Neoconservative Republican Party.

“I frame fascism in my book on two axes: the belief in human inequality and the violent and mythological drive towards essential identity.”

In 2011, David Irving, the famous Holocaust Denier, had an appearance nearby, and I was trying to understand the change that was taking place inside the radical right. What I found was something more culturally and ideologically concise than we have had for years. I stumbled upon a podcast called Vanguard Radio with a young and well spoken guy interviewing Merlin Miller, a former filmmaker who had become the presidential candidate for the American Third Position Party (now the American Freedom Party). The interviewer was Richard Spencer, and Vanguard Radio was the podcast for the now-defunct

It would be reductionist to just say that these were just “suit and tie fascists.” We have had that dynamic for years, with David Duke sprucing up the fourth-era KKK in the 1970s or American Renaissance trying to give scientific racialism an academic veneer. But this was more profound than that. Instead of simply trying to feign academia, they were really trying to create a coherent fascist ideology, to argue openly against human equality, democracy, and most of the founding post-Enlightenment ideas that even conservatives accepted. While most traditional American far-rightists focused heavily on double-speak and conspiracism (they did this as well), Spencer, and his group of misfits at, openly advocated for a difference of underlying values. It was this focus on values, what they identified as meta-politics, is what defined the Alternative Right, and they drew on a whole fascist intellectual tradition called the European New Right that we, until that point, did not have a corollary for in the U.S.

So it was at that point that I began reading the website regularly and, more importantly, listening to the podcast because it was through that conversational style that you could get the clearest statements of ideas, hear them develop over time, and begin to track their progress, organizing, and strategies. So over the years I kept up with that weekly touchstone, adding in a growing repertoire of white nationalist and Alt Right podcasts, including Counter-Currents Radio, The Daily Shoah, Fash the Nation, Start the World, Tribal Theocrat, Red Ice Radio, and others. The way they have created their own media has made it easy to monitor and track, and that is where my understanding of the Alt Right actually came from.

So it took several years of monitoring before a very clear picture of who they were, where they were going, and what threat they presented formed. By that point we were hitting 2015 and they were entering the larger culture through their tactical alliance with the troll culture found on Twitter, Reddit, and the “Chans,” and I began writing it about it at that point. By the time I got to the formal outlining of Fascism Today, I already had done years of research, so at that point it was about cataloguing, arranging, fact checking, and writing. Since I am continuing to focus on this, I am continuing to keep up the research, so that I am trying to use that background to keep on top of their trends and make the information useful.

Lyons: The term fascism gets used in a lot of different ways, and even just on the left, people have a lot of different ways of defining it or not defining it. I think it’s valid to talk about fascism without having a pithy one-sentence definition, but it is important to have some clarity about what we mean. And that requires a kind of balancing act. On the one hand, you need to articulate a concept of fascism that’s flexible enough to cover the diversity within far right politics and the fact that far right politics is dynamic and has changed enormously over the past century. On the other hand, you need the concept to be specific enough to be analytically useful, or else “fascism” just becomes an epithet without any real content. How do you approach this issue, and how do you frame the concept of fascism?

Burley: The problem with the term fascist is its heavy misuse, both as an epithet and from sincere mistakes. There are the mistakes of orthodox Marxism to frame fascism in terms of class compositions, one that misses ideological and cultural factors and the way that it morphs over time. There is also the problem of framing fascism only inside the geopolitics of interwar Europe, which essentially frames its defining features in politics that will not be repeated and necessarily makes fascism a threat of the past.

I side somewhat more slightly with scholar Roger Griffin and what is often called the “new consensus” that fascism, at least ideologically, makes up a form of what Griffin termed “palingenetic ultranationalism,” a nationalism born of myth and rebirth. I go ahead and frame fascism in my book on two axes: the belief in human inequality and the violent and mythological drive towards essential identity. This defines fascism as a belief in fixed identities that are unchosen and that human beings are unequal and society needs to remain stratified. I think this is a broad categorization that covers most occurrences of fascism, both in a revolutionary movement that takes state power and for an insurgent minority movement, but it is certainly not the whole picture. It takes further examination and comparison, but it is a starting point and a foundation for seeing how these movements form from a meta-political base, the space of idea that comes before politics.

When we look at the Alt Right in the U.S. or identitarianism in Europe, we see a battle for identity as an essential and fixed category, a traditionalism based on a mythic past, a violence rooted in warrior fetishism, and the fundamental belief in the need for social stratification based on a perceived natural hierarchy of human inequality. Without that, you do not have a fully formed fascist movement, but you may still have the kernels of fascism that some call proto-fascist.

What this sort of definition does is show how the seeds of fascism are often set across radical movements, even on the left. When the left uses essentializing narratives about race or gender, when the battle for greater equality is abandoned, or tradition and mythological origins are romanticized beyond cause, this creates the potential for what Alexander Reid Ross calls the “fascist creep.”

“Mass movement antifascism is not proposing to abandon militant antifascism. Instead it is actually just to build on what is there, find new ways of engaging the public and finding new platforms for resistance.”

Lyons: On Page 247 of Fascism Today you comment that “fascism has always fed on weaknesses of the left…” Please discuss.

Burley: There is one thing that antifascist author Spencer Sunshine told me that has always stuck with me. “Fascism is itself a critique on the left.” What I interpret this to mean is that fascism itself acts as a critique of the flaws in how the left presents itself, the weaknesses and flaws in organizing and argument. In a way, fascists often force the left to, as Saul Alinsky said, to “play by their own rules.”

The American left goes through many phases and takes on many competing, and often contradictory, modes of thought in an attempt to constantly reinvent a liberatory politic. In doing this, ideas are often appropriated and built that stray from its foundational principles, all in an effort to target specific areas of systemic and interpersonal oppression.

A very clear example of this is found in anti-imperialist politics. In many areas of the left, alliances have been made with despotic regimes, racial nationalists, and far-right actors who, while also opposing American military hegemony, have political ideas that would make us shudder. In the support of Palestinian liberation, this has meant even allying with open anti-Semites, who place Jews at the center of a cabalistic world conspiracy and who throw doubt on the Holocaust. In an effort to center the role of international finance in global destruction, many have made these same allegiances, using anti-Semitic caricatures and conspiracy theories in an effort to drive a populist anger against the bankers.

Another example of this has been in recent conversations about cultural appropriation. It has been a feature of Western colonialism to appropriate sacred items from colonized people and to use them in non-sacred ways for centuries, and today is no exception. Yet, in some of the myriad of blogs and conversations about cultural appropriation, the language and logic of ethnic cultural ownership has been used, which necessarily frames cultures and religions as having an essential nature belonging to a particular ethnic group. This cements a narrative that these cultural practices are part and parcel of ethnic groups, using the same logic that the European New Right does that culture is the manifestation of the spiritual and bio-psychological qualities of a particular “people.” To challenge these sorts of creeping narratives the left does not have to abandon those areas of struggle, but instead to clarify terms and strategies. You can oppose the careless appropriation of cultural artifacts without laying down nationalist arguments to do it. The same is true of issues like imperialism, gentrification, and international solidarity. Clarity in ideas and organizing provide this, and understanding the underlying ideological assumptions of fascism can help to develop this clarity and consistency.

Lyons: One of the things that impressed me about Fascism Today is how you talk about antifascism as a multifaceted movement, and about the need to create space for a range of antifascist strategies and political visions. I think this is related to one of the themes that’s central to Three Way Fight as a blog and as a political current, the idea that we need to combat fascist and far right political forces, and we also need to combat the established economic, social, and political order that fascism is rooted in but also genuinely at odds with. Please talk about your vision of antifascism as a multifaceted movement and how that relates to the three-way fight approach.

Burley: One of the things I describe in Fascism Today is what has been coined “mass movement antifascism,” which really just means an approach to antifascism that finds a place for the mass of people. Fascism itself is a mass politic, one that could not have existed in an era before mass participation in politics. If it is growing at a quick speed, beyond just insurgent violence threatened by neo-Nazi skinheads or the KKK, then antifascists can see a need for a mass response.

What this can mean is that the conception antifascist resistance can be expanded to find a place for everyone who wants to participate. One of the things I did in the second half of the book is to survey different approaches to antifascism, choices made on an axis of interest, access, location, skill set, and other dynamics. How do you approach the rightward creep in rural areas? How about communities that are under threat and want community support and defense systems? What about using existing structures of struggle, like labor unions? What about confronting fascist entryism into cultural institutions that you are already a part of, like a church or religious congregation? All of these areas provide different advantages and will attract different constituencies, and if they are tied together into a coalition whole then you have a large mass antifascist movement that takes on the struggle in multiple venues simultaneously.

What mass movement antifascism is not proposing, however, is to abandon other existing types of antifascist organizations, and certainly not to abandon militant antifascism. Instead it is actually just to build on what is there, add to it and find new ways of engaging the public and finding new platforms for resistance. If antifascists are not able to communicate with and find use of large masses of interested people, then they lose the ability to educate and transform the public along with the struggle. At the same time, a mass movement can achieve what a small cadre cannot.

An example of this was the recent set of antifascist mass actions in the wake of the Charlottesville disaster. In Boston, Alt Right groups were attempting to hold a public rally, including about 150 of their people. They were met by 40,000 opponents, some who were organizing antifascists and some who were community supporters who had never mobilized before. They shut down the event by challenging it through their numbers, and went even further, having a mass public action against fascism and the Trump administration. This has the potential of radicalizing a whole new mass constituency, getting them involved in ongoing projects, yet maintains the same tactical edge that antifascists wanted, namely to confront the fascists directly and disallow them space. What will be important, however, is to create good working relationships between groups, and to make sure that people, no matter what organizational approach they choose, understand why militant antifascism has been taken up and the important history it has had.

The other component of this resistance is to see it as a gateway to larger struggles about the issues that run underneath a fascist insurgency. Most people find Nazism abhorrent, but do they feel the same way about racist police violence or systemic inequality? Antifascism is a point of rupture in their feelings of normalcy, and this can be an opportunity to create entry into the larger work of dismantling white supremacy and hierarchical foundations. Fascism is the violent inequality of society moving from the implicit to the explicit, and it will continue to return unless that implicit element is addressed and demolished.

In a follow-up post, Shane Burley will interview Matthew N. Lyons.

Nov 13, 2017

The Alt-Right: History, Ideology, and the Future of a Fascist Movement (podcast)

Eric Draitser interviewed me for an episode of his Stop Imperialism podcast series on Patreon. The full podcast (almost two hours) is available to Patreon subscribers, while the first half is available for free. Here's Eric's description of the discussion:
This time on the podcast Eric welcomes author and researcher Matthew Lyons to the show to discuss the "Alt-Right," and how it relates to our politics today and in the future. The conversation begins with a discussion of what the alt-right is, and where it came from both intellectually, and in terms of its online evolution. From there, Eric and Matthew discuss everything from the terminology to the alt-right's discourse on women, culture, biology, race, politics, religion, and so much more.

The second half of the show explores the role of Donald Trump in mainstreaming the alt-right, and its relationship to international forces ranging from #Putin's Russia to active and nascent fascist movements throughout Europe. Eric and Matthew explore how the alt-right could potentially develop in the future, and what that means for #antifascists, and society generally. This in depth conversation goes down every rabbit hole, and explores myriad aspects of this complex and dangerous movement called the alt-right. Don't miss it!

Aug 20, 2017

Fascist anti-capitalism?

Henry Ford, industrialist and antisemite.
Jason Wilson of The Guardian has a good article about the role of socialism and anti-capitalism in fascist ideology. I am quoted along with antifascist authors Alexander Reid Ross and Shane Burley. Here's an excerpt:
[Lyons] talks of “a long tradition in Nazism and other parts of the far right of drawing a distinction between finance capital and industrial capital”, with the former, identified with Jews, being seen as “parasitic”.
                                        *                    *                    *

“Jewish finance” is consistently nominated as the principal enemy of these groups. Lyons explains that this distinction is an antisemitic variant on the ideology of “producerism”, which is common across the populist right and privileges the makers of tangible things over those engaged in more abstract pursuits. “They define industrial capitalists as ‘good’ capitalists, or even as workers,” he says, adding that this was how the noted antisemite Henry Ford described his role at the head of a giant auto manufacturer.
The question of fascism's relationship with capitalism is complex. This is a major topic of the book Confronting Fascism: Discussion Documents for a Militant Movement, and I encourage those interested to check out the essays in that book by Don Hamerquist and J. Sakai. Both of those essays are available here. The following passage from my essay "Two Ways of Looking at Fascism" summarizes some of Hamerquist and Sakai's points on the topic:
In different ways, both Hamerquist and Sakai argue that fascism’s radical approach shapes its relationship with capitalism.... [Sakai] describes fascism as “anti-bourgeois but not anti-capitalist.” Under fascist regimes, “capitalism is restabilized but the bourgeoisie pays the price of temporarily no longer ruling the capitalist State.”... Today’s fascism “is opposed to the big imperialist bourgeoisie… to the transnational corporations and banks, and their world-spanning ‘multicultural’ bourgeois culture. Fascism really wants to bring down the World Bank, WTO and NATO, and even America the Superpower. As in destroy.”

Sakai argues that fascism radically reshapes the capitalist social order to create an economy of “heightened parasitism”: “a lumpen-capitalist economy more focused on criminality, war, looting and enslavement.” He describes how Hitler’s regime elevated millions of German workers into a new parasitic class of soldiers, policemen, and bureaucrats and replaced them with a new proletariat of foreign and slave laborers, retirees, and women. This process “created an Aryan society that had never existed before” -– giving Nazi racial categories a concrete, social reality that was qualitatively new (but which paralleled the color-line divisions of U.S. society).

Sakai’s discussion belies claims that Hitler’s regime had little or no impact on the socioeconomic order. We should remember, however, that this discussion does not apply to Italian Fascism, which lacked Nazism’s overarching racialist imperative and never consolidated the same degree of control over the state. Its effect on the socioeconomic order was far more limited.

Hamerquist takes fascist anti-capitalism more seriously than Sakai does. He notes that current-day fascist movements encompass various positions on how to relate to the capitalist class, from opportunists who want to cut a deal, to pro-capitalist revolutionaries who want to pressure big business into accepting fascist rule, to some third positionists who want to overthrow the economic ruling class entirely. It is unclear how serious a challenge to capitalist economic power any fascists would mount in practice. Where it has been tested, fascist anti-capitalism has meant opposition to “bourgeois values,” specific policies, or a “parasitic” wing of capital (such as Jewish bankers) -– not the capitalist system. On the other hand, as Hamerquist warns, it would be dangerous for leftists to dismiss the prospect of a militantly anti-capitalist fascism simply because it doesn’t fit our preconceptions.

Hamerquist’s concept of fascist anti-capitalism rests partly on his analysis (following German left communist Alfred Sohn-Rethel) that German Nazism foreshadowed “a new ‘transcapitalist’ exploitative social order.” In particular, Hamerquist argues, German fascism’s genocidal labor policy broke with capitalist principles. Not just labor power, but workers themselves were “consumed in the process of production just like raw materials and fixed capital,” thus obliterating “the distinctively capitalist difference between labor and other factors of production.” True, “normal” capitalist development involves genocide “against pre-capitalist populations and against the social formations that obstruct the creation of a modern working class.” But by contrast, “the German policy was the genocidal obliteration of already developed sections of the European working classes” –- i.e., the importation of colonial-style mass killing into Europe’s industrial heartland.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that Nazism was in the process of overthrowing the capitalist system. The labor policies Hamerquist describes did not call into question the economic power of big business, and arguably could not be sustained for more than a brief period. But the very fact that they were not sustainable may be part of the point. As Hamerquist reminds us, Marx warned that the contradictions of capitalism might end, not in socialist revolution, but in “barbarism,” “the common ruin of the contending classes.” Fascist revolution could be one version of this scenario.
Photo credit: Jeffrey White Studios, Inc. - Time Magazine (public domain), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Aug 7, 2017

An Alt Right Update - Six Months After "Ctrl-Alt-Delete"

"An Alt Right Update," published by Political Research Associates, is my attempt to summarize how the Alt Right’s political situation has changed since Donald Trump took office on January 20th, when the report "Ctrl-Alt-Delete" first appeared. I focus on five major developments:
1. Trump’s election has encouraged supremacist violence by vigilantes and local police.

2. Despite Trump’s volatility, in policy terms his administration has largely been coopted by conventional conservatism.

3. The Alt Right has largely abandoned its support for Trump.

4. Alt Rightists have taken to the streets alongside other right-wing forces.

5. Alt Rightists and their allies have been turning toward physical violence and creating a street-fighting presence.
From the conclusion:
"Despite its disenchantment with the Trump administration, the Alt Right appears to be simultaneously building a real capacity for organized physical violence and strengthening its grassroots connections with other rightist currents, including Trump supporters.... This type of activism is a direct physical threat to both oppressed communities and the Left, and can fuel authoritarian and supremacist tendencies within the state at all levels....

"At the same time, we shouldn’t exaggerate either the unity or the competence of this new wave of militant right-wing forces. Rightists are just as vulnerable as leftists to infighting, personality conflicts, and sectarian ideological squabbles.... So far, thankfully, their movement has failed to produce a skilled, charismatic leader who can unify them and provide strategic direction.... And even a strong leader wouldn’t necessarily overcome the basic political differences separating Alt Rightists from their conservative fellow travelers. In the long run, if the Alt Right wants to coalesce with system-loyal rightists, it either has to win more people to its dream of right-wing revolution, or abandon it."
Read more

The report "Ctrl-Alt-Delete" is also the lead essay in the book Ctrl-Alt-Delete: An Antifascist Report on the Alternative Right (Montreal: Kersplebedeb Publishing, 2017).

Photo credit: Mark Dixon, via Flickr Commons (CC BY 2.0).

May 2, 2017

How the alt-right is reshaping patriarchal politics

I have a new opinion piece in The Guardian under the title "The alt-right hates women as much as it hates people of color." The article's main focus is the contrast between the alt-right's version of patriarchal politics and the Christian right's version. Here's an excerpt:
...the alt-right is reshaping patriarchal politics. Its version of male supremacy is not just more explicit or aggressive – it’s strikingly different from the version that’s been dominant among US rightists for decades.

Consider abortion. Some alt-rightists, unsurprisingly, argue that abortion is simply immoral and should be banned. Yet many others in the movement disagree – and for reasons that have nothing to do with respecting women’s autonomy or privacy. These alt-rightists support legal abortion because, they claim, it’s disproportionately used by black and Latina women and, secondarily, because they see it as a way to weed out “defective” white babies. In other words, they support abortion as a form of eugenics. Both sides of this internal alt-right debate agree that women have no business controlling their own bodies. As Greg Johnson of the alt-right website Counter-Currents put it, “in a White Nationalist society … some abortions should be forbidden, others should be mandatory, but under no circumstances should they simply be a matter of a woman’s choice”.

As far as I can tell, the only outsiders who have responded to this discussion are Christian rightists. For decades they’ve used the “black genocide” canard in an effort to smear abortion rights proponents as racist; now they have some actual racists to go after. But alt-rightists aren’t the least bit intimidated.
Note: The article draft I submitted included links to web-archived versions of alt-right and Christian right source articles (web-archived so you could see the content but it wouldn't boost traffic on their sites). The Guardian editors removed these links, because they didn't want to send readers to that kind of content, even in archived form. In the passage excerpted above, I've put the links back in.

Apr 26, 2017

Militant Tactics in Anti-Fascist Organizing--Interview Transcript

“I think some folks, many folks… try to divide the concept of a mass response with a militant response. That it’s only possible to do one or the other. I think we really want to challenge that. We think that what’s needed is both. And that’s not easy…but that’s our goal. To build a mass, militant movement that includes lots of people and that uses lots of tactics in order to confront this threat.”

This interview with longtime anti-fascist activist Kieran (who was one of the founders of Three Way Fight thirteen years ago) covers a wide range of topics: from the work of Anti-Racist Action in the 1980s and 90s to the IWW’s General Defense Committee today, from the politics of wearing masks to the dangers of relying on the state for protection, and from engaging organized labor to building community-based self-defense against the far right.

The interview was conducted for KPFA Radio’s Against the Grain by the program’s co-producer Sasha Lilley and was broadcast on February 14, 2017. The audio recording is available for download or online listening here. The following transcription, by Clarissa Rogers, appears with the permission of Against the Grain and the participants.

*                     *                     *

Kieran was one of the founders of Anti-Racist Action, a youth-based direct action movement that organized against Nazi skinheads, the Ku Klux Klan, and the white power music scene from the 1980s to the 2000s. He’s now chief steward in a local union of telecom workers and is a member of the Industrial Workers of the World’s General Defense Committee, which has taken on anti-fascist work in a number of cities. In late January, a member of the General Defense Committee of the IWW was shot at a Milo Yiannopoulos event in Seattle. Against the Grain, a program of radical ideas originating from KPFA Radio, spoke with him after demonstrators closed down Yiannapoulous’ event at UC Berkeley on February 1st.

ATG: Kieran, many liberals and leftists believe that the right of free speech is paramount. As you know, protestors using militant tactics shut down a Milo Yiannopoulos event at UC Berkeley, which is the home of the Free Speech Movement. Why don’t you think that the right of free speech should be extended to fascists and the far right?

Kieran: There are a couple points to this. I think there’s both a question of strategy and tactics. I think that all of this is with the understanding that what we’re opposing is not the free speech of fascists, or the speeches of fascists. What we’re doing is opposing the organizing of the fascists. So, for instance, in my workplace, I work with workers with a whole range of opinions on all different kinds of questions. And occasionally you’re going to run into people who are influenced by far right politics. In those circumstances it doesn’t make sense for me to start a fight, a physical fight with a coworker since they raised some perspective that comes from that background.

But that’s totally different than a situation where you have an organization or a personality who’s using the framework of a public speech or an event, a forum, in order to advance political goals. And so the way we look at it is the way we would look at any kind of organizing done by that group with those aims.

In the case at UC Berkeley, this outright celebrity and provocateur, Milo Yiannopoulos, very clearly is trying to advance a certain kind of politics and more and more is trying to shape it into a movement. Our understanding is that he was planning to out undocumented students at Berkeley for the sole purpose of putting them under attack by Trump’s immigration forces. And, so, in that circumstance, we can’t let that attack go unchallenged. And I think that when you look at it from that perspective, it makes sense to try and oppose it.

If we just wait until they’ve created the groundswell, or created the base of support for these aggressive actions to take place, it can be too late. And so the way we approach fascist organizing or right wing organizing is not really focused on the question of free speech but is focused on whether or not we’re going to let them organize to implement their program. And our perspective is that we’re not. We’re going to challenge it. We’re going to try to stop it. We’re going to try to stop them.

ATG: Let’s talk about the stakes. On the night of Inauguration Day, a member of the Industrial Workers of the World was shot in the stomach by a Milo Yiannopoulos supporter in Seattle. What do we know about what happened there and the condition of the man who was shot?

Kieran: Yeah, that’s correct. On the night of the inauguration, Yiannopoulos was speaking at the University of Washington in Seattle and there was a mass demonstration against him that included a range of political forces. And there was also a number of supporters of Trump and Yiannopoulos who were there as well. So there was a fairly confrontational scene happening outside of Yiannopoulos’s talk. And in that situation, my understanding (I wasn’t there), but my understanding was that one of the right wingers started to spray mace or another chemical at the anti-Trump, anti-Yiannopoulous forces, and that a member of the IWW and the General Defense Committee tried to intervene to stop that person from doing that, and was shot in the stomach, as you said.

It was a life-threatening injury. He was in the ICU for many days. He’s incurred at least two surgeries. So it was a deadly attack. And as of now, there have been no charges brought against the person who did it. Again, our understanding from media reports is that the person that shot him went to the police and gave a statement, and was released without any charges. And so, of course, this is sort of a bad sign for where things are at right now, that we take very seriously. Because as it stands what it appears is that some people are going to walk away from this with the idea that anti-fascists can be shot without consequences. And that’s very dangerous.

ATG: And in fact, that’s been the case. This past summer, there was a confrontation between white supremacists and radicals in Sacramento, California where a number of people were stabbed and there were no consequences.

Kieran: Right. I think that just points to a broader point, which is that we can’t rely on the law enforcement, on the state, to either defend our communities or defend anti-fascists. Some anti-racists have a perspective of wanting to try and call on the state to carry out justice and our approach is a little different. We come from it with an understanding that the state is not neutral. That the state is built on the foundation of a history exploitation and oppression, and represents the folks who are at the top of that system, and defend their interest. So when we’re organizing, we don’t do so from the point of view of trying to get the state or the police to protect us or to find justice for us, but instead we try and build movements that are self-reliant and are based on community self-defense, on popular self-defense.

ATG: There’s been a lot of debate amongst progressives and leftists about the use of militant tactics. Some of this is a continuation of debates that came out of Occupy, some of this goes even further back, but there are a lot of conflicting opinions. There’s no unity whatsoever amongst the left about the use of militant tactics, whether property damage or the shutting down an event. Are there times when militant tactics aren’t called for? Do they need to be considered strategically among other possible tactics?

Kieran: Yeah. I think all of this is a question of tactics. So that being said, I think we have some underlying principles, as well. And that those inform the tactics that we would draw from in order to organize effectively. And you can imagine lots of different situations where you’re encountering the right or the fascists, where either you don’t have the means to effectively disrupt their activity and their organizing, or you want to sort of put a larger emphasis on trying to undermine their ability to develop their base. And so there’s a few things, and it’s never been just a question of militant tactics. Militant tactics is a part of our strategy, but it’s not the only part.

A big part of it is a battle for the hearts and minds that the fascists are trying to recruit for their base. So we’ve always, along with militant tactics against their organizing, have also tried to engage with the communities that the fascists are targeting. And that can be from interviews or leafletting, to building cultural events like shows with bands, to trying to connect with the people in those communities that already have an anti-fascist impulse possibly because of their identity or how they see the world. But we try and bring a message that this program that the right wing and the fascists are selling is not in our interest as working class people. And that it is a dangerous and divisive one, and that it’s going to lead to a common catastrophe if enacted. And in fact, many of the concerns people have would be better served by organizing a united multi-racial, multi-cultural, anti-fascist movement that challenges the system.

ATG: One of the things that comes up in these debates--and not just from liberals, but also from others on the left--is that militant action can actually be alienating for those who would like to build larger grassroots opposition to the right. How would you respond to that?

Kieran: I’ve heard those arguments a lot. And I think it’s true that sometimes there’s poorly organized, or militancy that’s not well thought out. But I hear that argument, oftentimes from people who are really upset with how the mainstream media covers us. Or how the more moderate tendencies within the social movements react to it. While those things are important to be mindful of, I think that there’s also a question of people beyond the current left. People in working class communities. People who are already suspicious of what the mainstream media tells us. And I just think that it’s a fact that most working class people respect folks that stand up and are willing to defend themselves, and are willing to take risks. And so, you can watch a news report in which anti-fascists, or anarchists, or radicals are being condemned, but people receive that information in all different kinds of ways. People that are already suspicious of the way the mainstream media talks about anything, are likely to have a more positive response seeing a group of people standing up and fighting back.

So I think that we have to be really careful about arguments like that, because I think it tends to try and reduce all of our tactics to whatever the most moderate elements within the movement are willing to support. And that’s just not a recipe for building the kind of movement that we need. And it’s not a recipe for bringing in the most marginalized people, the people that are feeling sort of the knife’s edge of the system the most, because those folks already have an antagonistic attitude towards the system and towards these racists. And so if we’re serious [about] including those folks in our movements, then we can’t take a sort of moderate attitude towards them. When the racists and fascists are organizing, we have to be ready to stand up and fight.

ATG: I’d like to ask you about Anti-Racist Action, a youth-based militant direct action movement which organized against Nazi skinheads in the white power music scene and which you co-founded. It was started in the 1980s and lasted through the 2000s. How broad was it? And what sort of work did it do? There’s a renewed interest in it now.

Kieran: It started out sort of spontaneously in this sense. In the mid to late 80s, largely within the punk scene in the US and Canada, there was a sort of polarization politically that happened. And so, around the same time in many cities there were white supremacists and Nazi gangs formed. They were influenced by Screwdriver (which was a Nazi skinhead band, I should say), and the fascist politics of the National Front in Britain. And in response to that, or sometimes ahead of that there were groups that considered themselves militantly anti-racist and anti-fascist, and these two sets of groups could not coexist for long within alternative scenes, within the punk scene.

So there was a struggle that went on simultaneously in a number of cities, and the anti-racists who often started off as anti-racist skinheads and some punks, and some anarchist activists found each other after a while, either through touring with bands or through the letters column in Maximum Rocknroll, or by corresponding with each other, and started to network, started to build. So Anti-Racist Action was the organizing expression of that spontaneous organizing that happened in the youth culture scenes in North America.

Then, over the years it did broaden out to include people that didn’t come from those scenes that came from other subcultural scenes like graffiti, or young feminists, and hip-hop. It started to take on other issues, too, related to racism and white supremacy. So you had Anti-Racist Action chapters that organized Copwatch patrols against police brutality; participated in protests against police violence; helped defend abortion clinics from the far-right Christian right; and a number of other fronts that Anti-Racist Action was active in. So at its peak, it included several thousand mainly young people in North America who were self-organizing in their cities and in their scenes, and putting out zines and holding benefit concerts, and really, any time the fascists tried to make a move, resisting them.

At one point in the 90s, one of the major Ku Klux Klan groups tried to organize a series of rallies across the Midwest. They did this over the course of a few years, in little towns and big towns in Ohio, and Indiana, Wisconsin, Michigan. Anti-Racist Action was key to organizing resistance in all of those places. That meant, also, being in those small towns and talking to people, mainly young people in those towns and trying to connect with them. That was successful.

There was a number of ARA chapters in small towns as well as the big cities where the left is stronger. I think Anti-Racist Action, which had plenty of problems as all movements do, can really say that it helped restrain and deliver some defeats to fascist organizing in the US.

ATG: How seriously did the far right take the work of Anti-Racist Action? Did they see it as a genuine threat to their organizing?

Kieran: Absolutely. We were the major force that they had to deal with in terms of opposition on the streets. So they were very conscious of Anti-Racist Action. In every locality there would be conflicts, and there were many people who were harassed or intimidated, who might have gotten their homes graffittied, or phone calls to their parents with threats from the fascists. They definitely saw us as an obstacle to their ability, especially their ability to organize openly and in the public, and in contested public space.

I suppose the peak of this was in Las Vegas in 1998, I believe, on the 4th of July weekend a couple of anti-racist skinheads, one who was African American and one who was white, both of whom were well-known in the scene and active in Anti-Racist Action were kidnapped by a gang of white supremacists, and tortured and killed and left in the desert. So there were people that died fighting, being a part of this movement. That really hangs heavy for me and the other people that have been part of this, as does the shooting in Seattle, when you hear people complaining about the possible violation of Milo Yiannopoulos’s rights.

ATG: Let me ask you a question of clarification. You’ve mentioned anti-racist and anti-fascist skinheads several times. I think for a lot of people, when they hear the term “skinhead” they assume that’s synonymous with fascist and racist, and not anti-fascist and anti-racist.

Kieran: Yeah, sure. Skinhead culture came to the US mainly from the influence of British music, bands. The initial skinhead cultural scene from England, and the bands that were most popular within it, was a multi-racial scene, heavily influenced by Jamaican immigrants to England. So the skinhead identity has always been contested. Anti-racist skinheads make a strong claim that in fact the original skinhead identity was not a racist one, and was a multi-racial one. In the US, among the original chapters of anti-racist action, and the original fighters against white supremacist skinheads were a number of youth of color. So there were African American skinheads. In Chicago, there were Puerto Rican skinheads. In Milwaukee. There were Native American skinheads in Minneapolis, and they were a big and important part of the struggle that happened against the racists.

ATG: Let’s take things up to the present, looking at the lessons that can be drawn from the decades of work of Anti-Racist Action for the current situation where, with the Trump administration in power, you have an emboldened far right. Part of that far right, the alt right, is operating less on the streets and more on the level of propaganda on the internet, but then there are certainly groups on the ground as well. Can you tell us about the General Defense Committee of the Industrial Workers of the World and your political approach to countering fascist and racist forces on the ground?

Kieran: Definitely. I think you’re right in describing the situation right now--that we’ve gone from a situation where we were concerned about the growth of particular fascist and white supremacist organizations, and their movement building to a situation where all of a sudden, particularly through the alt right, there’s suddenly this mass propaganda and mass distribution of fascist ideas, so it’s no longer just about the growth of a neo-Nazi group in a certain town, but it’s the fact that the college Republicans on your campus are peddling alt right ideas. Also that that’s circulating on social media, and that it’s become a part of the public debate in a way that the neo-Nazi groups and Ku Klux Klan groups could never quite achieve in the past couple decades.

So that is a serious situation, and I think the thing that the GDC brings to this, is trying to formulate, is trying to connect the ideas of community self-defense, popular self-defense, popular anti-fascism with the idea that we need to cultivate a working-class base. That it can’t just be a squadron of elite anti-fascist carrying out a technical operation that’s going to win this. That we need to get the masses of working class people in our milieus from all different kinds of communities and identities together. That’s what it’s going to take to defeat the politics that Trump is putting forward in the system that gave birth to it.

I think that while we are proud to be militant anti-fascists, and we take that identity seriously, and we take those tactics seriously, we don’t want to marginalize ourselves, we don’t want to be what Lorenzo Kom’boa Ervin called a vanguard versus vanguard where people just see two street gangs fighting with each other, and don’t really see their needs or demands met by either one of them. Instead, we want to try and organize ourselves and our coworkers and our neighbors into a popular response to the fascists. One that, when we take action, we’re not just doing it on behalf of a small cadre of people but that it’s really an expression of a community, and of the working class as a whole.

ATG: How do you do that in practical terms?

Kieran: Well, I think, in many ways, it’s how we talk about it. It’s who we try to involve in our actions. It’s the way we report about and the way that we sum up our actions. The way we decide if we’re successful or not. So it’s not just purely a question of are we able to disrupt their organizing on this day? But it’s also a question of were we able to help develop a base within this community or within this working class that is going to be able to continually be able to confront the fascists and make it a hard place for the fascists to organize and grow?

Some concrete examples of that might be when neo-Nazis plan to organize against an anti-racist program that was being held by a local YWCA in Minneapolis a few years ago, we took that as an attack on the community. We organized leafletting in the neighborhood. We encouraged the neighbors to come out, the community to come out. We held a public meeting. So we gave a chance for people from the neighborhood and from different other organizations to become part of the organizers of the counter-action. There were some reformist leftist groups that came and really argued against any militancy. We argued with them in the open meetings so that there could be a community judgment about which tactics were best.

Myself, I coached soccer--youth soccer--in the parks here in Minneapolis and I let other parents from the folks that I coached with, let them know about this since it was in our neighborhood. And I distributed information about it at work, and brought out coworkers to it. So our attitude is that we want to build a popular defense against this. The fascists attack not just a small group of people, but really are against huge communities, and against the class as a whole. It weakens the class as a whole. So we want to have a popular response.

I think some folks, many folks--on both sides--try to divide the concept of a mass response with a militant response. That it’s only possible to do one or the other.

I think we really want to challenge that. We think that what’s needed is both. And that’s not easy. There’s no simple formula to it. We’re going to need to experiment. We’re going to get some things wrong. We’re going to bend the stick too far one way or the other, undoubtedly, but that’s our goal. To build a mass, militant movement that includes lots of people and that uses lots of tactics in order to confront this threat.

ATG: Frequently, when people are involved in militant actions, they wear masks or take other steps to keep from being identified by the police or the far right.  But what if that anonymity allows people to become vigilantes, unaccountable to other radicals for their actions?  In your experience, how has this tension between militant action and accountability been addressed?"

Kieran: The question of masks is one that there has been some debate around within the General Defense Committee and the broader circles we participate in. But I'm not sure that accountability is the main issue. I agree that there should be some kind of accountability by individuals and groups to the broader movement (and, I would say, to the working-class base) but what that accountability is - is open to debate. For instance some sections of the movement insist on strictly legalistic framework and use the argument that anything outside of a strict legalism threatens the most vulnerable and oppressed. We should challenge that argument--when real, sustained militancy erupts it is almost always from those who feel the pressure the most--if others join in, that is an important act of solidarity. And we should reject "accountability" to the law or to forces inside the movement who would turn people over to the authorities.

But it is true I think that groups and individuals should be answerable in some form to their tactical decisions - but this is not just true of masked-up militants, but of everyone in an action. People should be accountable for working with the police (an act that endangers us), or for the political line that they project on banners, flyers, or chants etc. In other words ALL tactics should be open to debate and criticism.

To get further at the specifics of your question--masks may hide an individuals identity and therefore prevent that particular individual from being "accountable", but generally people in political movements, especially if they've been around for a while, have an idea of the different forces involved and not knowing an individual's name has never stopped folks from (rightly or wrongly) criticizing actions.

The question we've been debating here about masks is a little different. We've been debating whether they are actually effective for security. Now we aren't arguing about whether they are effective at concealing your identity--lets say they are. But we've noticed that if you are a smallish group of people all masked up in a larger demo--the police will actually focus on you--instead of becoming camouflaged, you are actually in the spotlight. The cops may not immediately know who you are but if they focus on the masks, they can just wait until an opportune time and surround and detain the masked-up people and ID or arrest them. We've seen this happen a couple of times.

This speaks to what actually provides security--I would say it is having a real working-class base of support for your organizing, for your projects. Regular people that have a stake in the organizing, that understand the need for militant action, that are willing to stand up and defend each other both politically and physically - that give a shit if one of their friends or comrades is attacked or arrested. This is a much more important, much more real form of security--but it often gets lost in the aesthetic desire for a certain militant "look" that includes masks.

Another related consideration is that masks can make it harder to further develop a base--to talk to people at an action or other event, to have discussions and arguments. There is also the very real factor that folks can get confused as to what people in the masks stand for--and not just liberal pacifists either. The GDC's experience in participating in the struggle for Justice for Jamar Clark (a young unarmed African-American worker killed by the Minneapolis Police in 2015) was that many times people from the Northside community where Jamar was from, who were quite militant were also very suspicious of people in their midst with masks on. This was exacerbated by the fact that a group of masked-up white supremacists attacked the protest occupation, shooting and seriously wounding four people. So there were a couple times where people from the community tried to evict masked up activists from street demos--and this wasn't the "peace police"-types, but neighborhood militants. We spent time arguing with people over evicting them, we defended those wearing masks--but I started thinking "Is this really effective? Is this the best use of our time?"

In saying all that, we should never rule out masks. It's a tactical choice. For all the above negative examples, there are also counter-examples of folks from different scenes sharing masks at mass actions that turn militant, where masks handed out were appreciated and seen as an asset. The point is that we should think through tactical choices, weigh the pros and cons--with one of the main considerations being will this help build/expand a militant working-class base to fight fascism, to fight exploitation and oppression.

ATG: You’re the chief steward at a local union in Minneapolis, which represents telecom workers. What do you think labor’s role should be in battling the forces of the right? Most unions are, of course, not the Industrial Workers of the World. They don’t self-identify as radical. But even though unions only represent a small portion of the working class, they still are the only membership-based organizations of the working class. Is there a role for unions? And is it realistic to expect them to be involved in such militant action against the right?

Kieran: I think so. I think if we look at where there have been mass confrontations, going back to the 80s and 90s where some Klan rallies provoked big responses, where large numbers of people came out in Michigan and Ohio and Pennsylvania, Indiana--lots of times you’re going to run into union members who come out against that stuff. We need to turn it away from just being individual actions of individual union members, to more of an organized expression.

So I think you’re right that unions, along with churches and other houses of worship, are some of the few mass membership organizations out in the class. We need to go to the unions. And if the union leadership wants to avoid it or doesn’t take this seriously, then we need to build rank and file groups that are willing to take this seriously.

My experience is, actually, that people in work places are incredibly interested in this stuff. If the Klan is coming to your town, or if there are fascists organizing in your city, people--more people than one might expect--are interested in opposition to that. And I think we need to build on that. And I think that hopefully the GDC, with its origins in the labor movement, can play a role in bringing on board some unions, or groups of rank and file workers from the unions who can be a part of this movement.

ATG: Let me end by asking you perhaps the hardest question, which is: in thinking about opposing the right and the very serious threats that people are facing in the United States right now, is the greatest threat from fascist groups on the ground or is the repression of the state a much more serious issue as we’re seeing with the deportations of the undocumented, first under Obama, of course, and now under Trump? And if that’s the case, how do we fight that?

Kieran: That’s a good question. I don’t think that it’s either/or. I think that the state is becoming increasingly oppressive. And part of what is allowing that to happen is, even though Trump lost the popular vote, and millions more people didn’t vote for either of the candidates, the fact that he did have millions of voters allows him to present a mandate to carry out these actions.

I read a recent article about how Trump was very keen on using his Twitter to unleash action. This wouldn’t be formally state action, he’s not necessarily calling the FBI to go harass one of his critics. But by using social media he’s able to unleash a torrent of abuse on whoever he’s decided is the enemy of the moment, by his supporters.

So I think that there are two things. There’s the danger of increased deportations, increased raids, attacks on the ability of women to get reproductive health care. There are attacks on so many fronts that are going to come from the state, and some moving back by both parties. We have to be aware of that. So we’re going to need to form resistance to that.

And then at the same time, one of the big dangers is that the forces on the ground, people that we might live next to or work with, are going to be organized into right wing and fascist formations, or at least be soft support for that taking place. I think that some of our tactics and our strategies are similar for both, though. When we talk about organizing community self-defense, that’s not just against the fascists, or just against the state, but against whatever attacks come. Even from attacks within the community from anti-social or sexist or racist elements within the community. So I think that a strategy that we’ve set for the near term, which is organizing community self-defense, is the method that’s needed for both.

  • Feb 18, 2017

    How the Alt Right builds on earlier far right upsurges: teleSUR article

    I have an opinion piece on teleSUR about “How the Alt Right Builds on Earlier Far-Right Upsurges.”  A lot of my work over the past couple of years has been based on a distinction between the far right and the system-loyal right. The teleSUR article summarizes this analytic point:
    "The alt-right's attitude toward Trump highlights an important dividing line within the U.S. right — the divide between those who accept the legitimacy of the existing political system, and those who don't. I reserve the term 'far right' for forces that (1) regard human inequality as natural or inevitable and (2) reject the established political order on principle. The 'system-loyal right,' by contrast, includes those forces that want to make change through incremental measures. An analogy on the left is the difference between social democrats and communists, reformists and revolutionaries.

    "One of the biggest ways that far rightists make an impact is through collaboration and interchange with system-loyal rightists, such as alt-rightists helping to put Trump in the White House and using his campaign to increase their own visibility. Yet the two part company on whether to accept the U.S. political system or abandon it and sooner or later that is likely to lead to conflict."
    The article presents the Alt Right's rise in the context of the Nazi-Klan upsurge of the 1980s and the Patriot movement's rise in the 1990s:
    "Unlike the Nazi-Klan movement of the 1980s or the Patriot movement of the 1990s, the alt-right mostly exists online. This means it is unlikely to take up armed struggle or organize militias, but it has powerful tools to continue its 'metapolitical' strategy, to shift the parameters of political discourse as a first stage before transforming institutions. And unlike the previous two far-right upsurges, which were met by federal government crackdowns, the alt-right now faces a presidential administration that it helped to put in power."

    Feb 8, 2017

    Against the Grain interview: The Origins and Politics of the Alt-Right

    The Pacifica Radio program Against the Grain recently broadcast an interview with me about the Alt Right. Here's their description:
    "Until the last year or two, most people had never heard of the alt-right. But the lead up to the election of Donald Trump has highlighted its noxious influence, including in the corridors of power. Is the term the 'alt-right' just a fig leaf for neo-Nazism? Or is the alternative right a new formation of reactionary politics, steeped in white supremacy and misogyny? Scholar Matthew Lyons talks about the intellectual origins of the alternative right, and the relationship between the alt-right and Trump’s key advisor Steve Bannon. He also weighs in on whether the Trump administration is fascist."
    The interview, which was conducted by Against the Grain co-producer Sasha Lilley and aired on February 6, is available for download or for listening online.

    Jan 20, 2017

    Ctrl-Alt-Delete: new report on the alternative right

    A new in-depth report on the alt-right, by me, is now available on the Political Research Associates website, under the title "Ctrl-Alt-Delete: The origins and ideology of the Alternative Right."

    This same report will also soon be available as part of a hard-copy booklet from Kersplebedeb Publishing, under the title Ctrl-Alt-Delete: An Antifascist Report on the Alternative Right. The booklet will also feature "The Rich Kids of Fascism: Why the Alt-Right Didn't Start With Trump, and Won't End With Him Either" from the It's Going Down website, "Notes on Trump" by Bromma, and other resources.

    Jan 19, 2017

    It's Going Down podcast: Matthew Lyons on the Insurgent Far Right, Trump, and #DisruptJ20

    I was interviewed about the far right and the Trump administration for a podcast on the It’s Going Down website. The podcast opens with a long rap piece and a general introduction by the host. The interview itself starts around 10:10.