By B. Sidney Smith
Sunday, August 20, 2017
I wish to address the following question: What ought to be the position of the Green Party of the United States with respect to the movement known as Antifa?
This is an urgent question. The resurgence of an emboldened white-nationalist community, evidenced for instance by the recent rallies and violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, has brought forth a correspondingly emboldened community in opposition to them. While all Greens are opposed in principle to white nationalism and racism, there is no consensus regarding the appropriate responses to white nationalists themselves, or to their private and public activities.
Many Greens are either active in or sympathetic with the collective known as Antifa, which is a portmanteau of “anti-fascist.” Antifa is dedicated to protecting people of color, women, LGBTQ, immigrants, and other vulnerable members of society from violence and other harassment by white supremacist or other right-reactionary groups.
However, many Greens are troubled by Antifa because their tactics include violence against both property and persons. Issues regarding the relationship between the GPUS and Antifa have increased already existing tension over the adequacy of the party’s anti-racist stance and activities, and in recent weeks this tension has boiled over into stark dissension. In my own state party at least one local has suffered a serious rift, with loss of members. I am aware of many other equally serious rifts within local and state parties across the nation that are a result, at least in part, of this issue.
I want the aims and scope of my analysis to be clear at the outset. I assume that my reader is unequivocally opposed to racism. I trust that all American Greens affirm that our nation’s endemic racism, particularly in its most overt form, white nationalism, represents a grave threat to vulnerable communities, and that protection of these communities from white violence, including individual, organizational, and state violence, is among our foremost obligations. Further, I assume that none of my readers would dispute the urgent necessity of rectifying the present and historical injustices arising from white supremacy, including by providing reparations to black and indigenous Americans and empowering people of color and other disadvantaged persons at all levels of society.
Therefore this essay is not concerned with whether white nationalism ought to be opposed and ultimately eradicated. That is a given.
I also wish to make very clear what I will mean in this essay when I use the word “Antifa.” Antifa is not a single organization. It is a movement of autonomous groups and individuals, organizing largely through social media and private communication and acting in loose coalition, with the common aim of opposing and disrupting the white-nationalist movement (primarily), including neo-nazis, neo-fascists, the KKK, and other far-right organizations and individuals.
Finally, I do not intend to address the question of whether Greens as individuals should be part of Antifa. My concern is solely with our institutional stance on Antifa. My own sensibility about Antifa is ambivalent. I am not active in Antifa, and I have concerns that would prevent me from becoming active or self-identifying as a “member” of Antifa. However, I recognize that we could face—that we may already face—social and political exigencies that confer not only moral legitimacy but even moral urgency on citizen actions taken outside our established civic institutions, and possibly even outside the law. Regardless, individual participation in Antifa is a separate subject from the one I will address here, except to note that the advocacy or practice of violent political action is grounds for expulsion from the Green Party of Virginia under our bylaws, and I expect other state parties have similar rules.
The Green Party of the United States has a history of either tacitly or explicitly endorsing movements for social change. Instances include conventionally organized movements such as the Industrial Workers of the World, as well as decentralized movements such as Black Lives Matter and the Occupy movement.
Whether the GPUS ought implicitly or expressly to endorse Antifa can hinge on only two issues. First, are the aims of Antifa consistent with the aims of the GPUS? That is, are the outcomes toward which Antifa’s activities are directed outcomes that the GPUS also works toward? Second, is Antifa’s praxis consistent with Green principles and standards for the methods of achieving progressive change?
If the answer to each of these questions is unequivocally yes, then the GPUS ought to make common cause with Antifa, endorse their program, and even join or cooperate with them. Otherwise, it ought not to do so.
The standard by which such questions are judged are our Four Pillars and Ten Key Values: any serious conflict with any of these would be sufficient to raise blocking concerns. I believe it will be sufficient here to consider just two of our Four Pillars: Non-Violence and Grassroots Democracy.
THE PILLAR OF NON-VIOLENCE
Violation of the principle of political non-violence is the most commonly expressed concern about Antifa. We should first of all consider what the principle of non-violence asserts. Non-violence is not the same as pacifism. Although many Greens are Ghandian or otherwise pacifistic in their approach to social change, this is not what our Pillar of Non-violence itself represents. Greens endorse the validity of self-defense and the defense of others from violence, by force if necessary. Rather, the principle asserted is a political one, that political change (and therefore social change) cannot legitimately be imposed or otherwise brought about by violence.
This principle begs the question of what constitutes violence. Physical force imposed upon someone against their will is clearly violence. What about verbal abuse? What about the threat of physical violence? What about other forms of coercion? Is “hate speech” a form of violence? Is discrimination (racial, gender, religious, etc.) a form of violence?
These are questions that cannot be answered objectively. Most people would likely consent to the proposition that any of these might be considered a form of violence, particularly when contextualized by privilege over the victim. However, neither the law nor philosophy provides any final answer to cover all cases.
Because white nationalism expressly endorses and uses all of these forms of violence, it is uncontroversial that the Green Party principle of non-violence does not foreclose a vigorous response. Even the use of violence itself in response to such violence is not proscribed by the principle if the situation requires the use of force to protect victims.
Nevertheless, two grave concerns remain. The first is that in any (functioning) democratic society the state rightly retains a monopoly on the use of physical violence, except in very carefully circumscribed cases. I will address this concern below, in the section on Grassroots Democracy. The other concern is germane here. To be justified by its ends, violent means must first of all achieve those ends; further, it cannot be considered just if the ends could have been achieved without violence, or with lesser violence.
Suppose we stipulate that hate speech is a form of violence. What is an appropriate defense against such violence? Is “punching a nazi” an appropriate response to the public expression of nazism? We have seen in recent weeks that a great many Greens (and others) believe that it is. Ordinarily, it is hard to view a physical assault as a proportionate response to an expression of ideas, however hateful those ideas. Neither is it easy to see a physical assault in such a circumstance as a “defense” against hate speech. Seemingly, the assault generally has the opposite effect, of amplifying the speech as well as validating and emboldening the person assaulted.
The arguments offered by proponents of throwing the punch generally take one or more of these forms: (1) they deserve it; (2) we fought nazis in a previous generation; or (3) it’s the only effective means to deter them from harming others. The argument from retributive justice (they deserve it) is really just an expression of anger. Whether the anger is just, or whether the punch is a legitimate expression of such anger, is actually beside the point; it cannot be considered as an act of self- or other-defense on those grounds, nor as a legitimate political strategy. World War II and other historical conflicts are likewise irrelevant; that we warred against national regimes abroad and in the past does not determine the appropriate response here and now to fellow citizens, even those with similar political and social opinions to past enemies.
The third argument is the only one that speaks to the issue, namely that without a violent response the white nationalists will prevail in their own violent assault on others, and therefore a violent response is necessary. Members of Antifa have made a compelling case that when white nationalists hold public events, these are generally accompanied by some form of covert assault on members of the community. Such assaults are sometimes physical, more often they take the form of intimidation and threats. These planned attacks are in addition to the potential attacks not planned but motivated by the events. The vehicular assault and murder by the young white-supremacist in Charlottesville was an extreme but otherwise not unusual example.
Further, it is uncontroversial that many law enforcement agencies have members who are sympathetic to or even belong to far-right and white-racist groups. It is known that these groups have even worked to infiltrate law enforcement; to what extent they have succeeded is not known, but it is believed to be significant. Consequently, those under a threat of harm at the hands of white nationalists justly fear that local law enforcement may not be a reliable shield; rather, law enforcement personnel may themselves represent a threat to their safety.
For these reasons, if in fact physical assaults on individual racists, or if the destruction of property leading to cancellation of events in the name of public safety, have the effect of preventing violent harm to the would-be victims of white nationalism, then these tactics are at least partly justified. To be fully justified would require the further stipulation that the tactics are necessary, that is, that no other tactical response short of violence could achieve the same degree of protection of victims.
But that leaves us with two questions in need of an answer. Are the violent tactics actually effective? That is, does successfully shutting down an individual’s public appearance or an organization’s public event have the effect of lessening the violence against racism’s victims? And, to the extent that these tactics are effective, does choosing them foreclose the choice of other, non-violent tactics that might be yet more effective?
I don’t have the answers to these questions. I don’t know who, if anyone, does. However, we do have the lessons of history and of human nature. The verdict of history, as of moral authority, is that violence is a cycle. Consequently, the burden is upon the practitioners of violence to justify its use. They must convince us that the violence is both necessary and just. It is far from clear that this burden has been met.
We often hear in connection to recent events that “hate speech isn’t free speech.” It is argued that permitting white supremacists to publicly promote their views is in itself to permit violence against the defenseless.
This proposition forms the basis of Antifa’s most visible strategy when it comes to white nationalists; committing acts of violence with the aim of provoking a response that disrupts or prevents their individual public appearances or group events. Notable recent examples included setting fires, throwing rocks at police, attacking standers-by, and damaging property. Once violence erupts, authorities have no choice but to cancel any ongoing event and attempt to disperse the attendees.
Increasingly and alarmingly, Antifa activists are arming themselves with clubs, knives, pepper spray, fireworks, and even firearms for use in disruptive violence. There were many violent engagements, including with weapons, between Antifa and rightists in Charlottesville.
The question this strategy raises about free speech is not whether hate speech is Constitutionally protected. The question is not whether nazis should be allowed to promote their agenda, nor is it whether rallies in support of racism should be permitted in public.
The question, rather, is who decides.
In the name of protecting the vulnerable, Antifa have granted to themselves the authority to determine what constitutes allowable speech, and who, therefore, is to be permitted a podium to express their political views. However, the members of Antifa are self-selected. They are accountable to no one but themselves, and generally do not even reveal their identities. Unlike the officials whose authority they reject, they cannot be voted out of office.
This is the paradox of this brand of anarchism. Antifa deny the legitimacy of public authorities. But they arrogate to themselves the authority to define the acceptable boundaries of political expression. To claim public authority without public accountability is the very definition of authoritarianism.
Democracy comes at a price; those who hold authority must be beholden to those over whom that authority is held. Without such accountability there is no democracy, grass-roots or otherwise. In this respect, Antifa’s mode of operation is in direct conflict with the grass-roots democracy pillar of the Green Party.
Greens find themselves in a very difficult time. For more than a generation, at least, our public institutions have been in decline, and public trust in those institutions has eroded significantly. We face the prospect of social unrest on a scale not seen in the United States since before World War II. The extent of economic and social dislocation, combined with profound public corruption and deepening injustices, are inflaming existing tensions at the same time that social media is providing a growth medium for conflict, and providing as well a mechanism for organizing that can focus that conflict in time and space.
The present failure of our institutions opens a period of great danger for our civic future. But it also opens an opportunity for a revolution to reshape and rebuild those institutions. The Green Party exists precisely so as to help lead our communities, our country, and our world into a future of justice and prosperity rather than a future of conflict and desperation. We cannot hope to do so if we, as an institution, fail in our most fundamental political commitments.
Many thoughtful observers expect social conflict to worsen considerably, with the potential for open warfare in our communities. We saw a preview of this in Charlottesville this August, with the authorities all but useless as running battles raged through the narrow streets of that college town. The Green Party must be a beacon and a bulwark against this kind of breakdown. We must continue to insist on non-violence as a fundamental political principle, and on accountability as the foundation of democracy.
Antifa, as it is currently constituted and as it currently operates, is not consistent with the aims or methods that the Green Party espouses. While Greens should work with equal, indeed greater commitment to protecting the vulnerable and securing social justice, we cannot do so with reflexive or deliberate violence imposed in the absence of democratic accountability. Antifa and the Green Party share a common cause, and a common concern, but neither can endorse the other and remain itself.
There is one final point. As social unrest increases, the authoritarianism that has always characterized our government institutions to some extent is almost certain to dominate government response to that unrest. Strikingly, in the last several years governments at all levels have put in place numerous mechanisms that could be used for totalitarian control. Deliberate public violence by those on the political left has absolutely no chance of weakening that control. On the contrary, such violence provides the pretext for suspending democratic institutions in the name of public safety.
This is the paradox of peaceful revolution. To succeed, we must commit most deeply to such democratic institutions as we have, strengthening and defending them against the authoritarian impulse among both our ruling class and our impassioned youth. To weaken public trust in democracy now is to invite the very fascism we aim to prevent.