On Punching Nazis

Over the past couple of weeks, social media has filled up with breathless accounts of far right leaders having gotten their comeuppance by being physically assaulted or, in a recent case, murdered in an act of domestic violence.

While it’s hard to have much sympathy for the victims, some of us are disinclined to celebrate.

One should never express pleasure in killing or inflicting violence, no matter how loathsome, dangerous or “deplorable” the victim is. Or so the story goes, one whose roots go back to the enlightenment.

To be clear, that does not mean that violence is never justified. For example, it was probably necessary to kill Nazis-possibly even to kill millions of them. It was also entirely legitimate for the African National Congress to militarily engage the South African army, and to kill as many of them as possible just as it was for the Sandinstas to target the security forces of the Samoza dictatorship.

But publicly proclaiming one’s joy in having done so-or, even worse, to have made jokes about the tens of thousands incinerated in Dresden, the necklacing of government informants, or retribution against landowning families in retaliation for their generations of predation-this is in a different category.

Insofar as the movements did so then, they sacrificed their claim to moral authority and the same can be said for those doing so now. In some cases, it was no more than the usual  suspects attempting to harness a viral meme to promote their own agenda or sects. One would hope that those considering enlisting with them will think seriously about who they are getting involved with. Those celebrating violence perpetrated against views they regard as beyond the pale have only a small step to take to justify retaliation against those with whom they have less extreme disagreements. If they were in charge, many of us would find ourselves on the receiving end as did the leftist opponents of some of the left regimes they look back to with some nostalgia.

Of course, not all of those excited about “punching Nazis” were pursuing an agenda. Whether we admit it or not, many of us will experience a visceral thrill from seeing our enemies getting pounded on by our friends. Indeed, this would appear to be a hard wired response to a stimulus, similar to a dog salivating when it sees a bone, moths attracted by a light source, or our leg muscles flexing when we receive a tap on the knee cap.

Accepting that we have involuntary reactions, however, doesn’t require that we act on them. We might want to blurt out an insult when our boss or spouse annoys us just as certain testosterone addled males will be inclined to grab an attractive woman “by the pussy.” But it should be obvious that these sentiments are best left unexpressed, either in our actions or our words.

The same goes for public statements with respect to acts of violence undertaken in the heat of the moment. We should disassociate ourselves from them, making clear that our positions are based on a considered assessment of the facts rather than our immediate emotional reactions to some real or manufactured outrage.


All this should be painfully apparent to the left now more than ever since the reason why we are confronting an emboldened far right is, in part, because of our failure to sufficiently control our emotional reactions only a few months ago.

All of us knew, or should have known, that preventing a far right victory involved transcending our feelings of disgust at having to vote for yet another lying neoliberal warmonger. Instead, too many of us capitulated to them with the result that white supremacists and neo-Nazis and their sympathizers now have significant influence in all three branches of the federal government.

That the left needs to learn to act strategically using the entirety of its brain rather than its amygdala in responding to political reality is a lesson that we fail to learn at our, and the world’s, peril.

Assuming that we can win arguments with our fists rather than our words is just another sad indication of our continuing failure to learn it.

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4 thoughts on “On Punching Nazis”

  1. Failure to support Hillary leads to fascism? Somehow I doubt that Trump’s narrow wins in a few key swing states was a result of radical lefties who refused to support Hillary. The fault is with a Democratic Party that long ago stopped listening to its voters in favor of its funders. They were deaf to the mood of the electorate and nominated a candidate who represented everything people hate about Democrats.

  2. There’s a lot to unpack here.

    Fascism is fundamentally organized, extra-legal violence against working-class organizations and oppressed people. Significant sections of the ruling class tend to support fascism (in their own countries, at least) as something of a last resort, when other methods of pacifying the popular classes have failed. In Weimar Germany, for instance, scores of people belonged to right-wing paramilitary groups.

    We are far from the point where the US ruling class would throw its support to fascists. We have no movements of the working class or oppressed that seriously threaten their interests. We have 6% private sector union membership, and 76% percent of Americans expressing a “great deal” of respect of police, per Gallup — up 12% from 2015.

    Trumpism is not fascism, but right-wing populism in the mold of UKIP. Instances of violence by Trump supporters have been isolated and spontaneous rather than organized and strategic. Trump was brought to power not by ruling class support (which he clearly lacked) but by contingent circumstances, and also perhaps by sections of the national security state seeking reorientation in the face of American imperialism’s declining fortunes.

    Neither, as Angela Nagle pointed out on Behind the News this week, can the so-called “alt-light” wing of US Right be accurately characterized as fascist. Milo Yiannapoulos has the same relation to Richard Spencer as, say, ’70s punk rock does to ’90s pop punk. He selectively flirts with white nationalism and perhaps renders it more palatable, but he probably isn’t himself a white nationalist, at least not in the same sense as someone like Spencer, and certainly not a Nazi. The same goes for Bannon.

    That’s not to say that Trump or Breitbart aren’t that bad. They’re terrible — a bigger threat, because of their power, than actual fascists. But understanding the nature of that threat is necessary to understanding the tactic required to effectively confront it.

    It’s a long-established principle on the Left that we have an ethical right to confront fascists with physical force . We have that right because fascism is itself intrinsically violent. We can further extend this principle and say that we have the right to confront in this way any forces that themselves pose a credible threat of physical violence, or of harassment (in the legal sense of the term), which does include some who might not exactly meet the definition of fascism as outlined above.

    There recently have been three high-profile instances of physical force being wielded against Trump supporters: Richard Spencer getting punched, Milo getting shut down at Berkeley, and Gavin McInnes getting shut down at NYU. I think Spencer’s NPI speech was unquestionably a declaration of war and have no moral qualms about him getting punched in the head.

    Milo previously had publicly bullied a trans student in a manner tantamount to sexual harassment; I can’t seriously ask students to take a “wait and see” attitude toward these antics, so can’t object to him getting shut down. And McInnes, though himself more of an alt-light figure, organizes the Proud Boys group, which includes some truly scary types, and has, for instance, advocated that Proud Boys break up anti-fascist punk shows in NYC. Again, I can’t object to people’s right to no-platform him.

    However, as Lenin pointed out long ago in relation to the right of nations to self-determination, saying you have the right to do something is different from saying you should do that thing. Scandalous as it undoubtedly is to much of the US Left to hear (“diversity of tactics!”), politics cannot be reduced to ethics, and there are plenty of things that are ethically permissible but politically misguided.

    I’m a fence-sitter on whether it was politically advantageous for any of these particular instances of anti-fascist violence to occur. I am glad that Spencer has been immortalized as an embarrassing meme instead of a “dapper” fascist in glossy magazine spreads. But we can’t overemphasize this stuff, and we certainly can’t justify attacks on random bystanders (some of them apparently not even Trump supporters) or equally random property destruction.

    We also can’t adopt the liberal terms of discourse, in which any manifestation whatsoever of right-wing authoritarianism is “fascism.” That’s a notion that serves to prettify the normal workings of the system, and leads straight to popular-frontism. Antifa vanguardism is merely the expression of the latter through its dialectical opposite.

    Now, when anti-fascist violence does happen, do we celebrate it? I don’t personally, and find it distasteful. But I understand why people do, and I wouldn’t go so far as to say they cede any moral high ground when they do. We should for sure combat the glorification of violence, but without sliding into bourgeois obsession with civility.

    1. First few paragraphs seem reasonable. This does not:
      “It’s a long-established principle on the Left that we have an ethical right to confront fascists with physical force.”
      My experience with the left is the exact opposite: it has a long standing commitment to non-violence for both principled and tactical reasons-compelling ones, in my opinion.

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