As white nationalists attacked towns across the US, many of the critiques of black bloc and antifa tactics were cheap shots.
“The next day, for example, those 20 of us who were standing, many of them clergy, we would have been crushed like cockroaches if it were not for the anarchists and the anti-fascists who approached, over 300, 350 anti-fascists. We just had 20. And we’re singing "This Little light of Mine," you know what I mean? --Cornel West talking about Charlottesville on Democracy Now
Over the last year white nationalists have descended on towns unleashing intimidation and violence, often calling their incursions “free speech” rallies. The various factions of the Left have debated strategies of resistance and counter-organizing, and in some cases, wondered whether or not the problem of the “alt-Right” merits any attention at all. The implication from some has been that anyone who does directly challenge marauding right wing bands in their communities cannot be grounded in class-struggle work or analysis, and can be dismissed as mere adventurists.
This essay will document the way high profile sectarian and academic Leftists engaged in uncomradely behavior toward those they often label “ultra-Lefts” as the white nationalists moved forward with more attacks. Cadre groups and professional analysts can have severe limitations in accurately assessing “situations on the ground” regarding class struggle. This has to do with the necessity for them to defend their own institutional existence. The opposite problem can exist for groups who are beholden to no one, yet presume to speak on behalf of communities seen as constituents without having conferred legitimacy or leadership to them. Any real discussion over strategy and tactics would need to consider both aspects of the situation currently unfolding. At the end of this piece I offer one example of analysis that does that.
Comradely Debate or Attack the Bloc?
Despite their calls for open discussion and debate, sectarian groups tended to lock down around the positions they wanted to push while allowing dissenting positions to be voiced, and ignored.
After the February 1st Milo event at UC Berkeley, Professor Sherry Wolf, a socialist historian and organizer with the International Socialist Organization (ISO) made the reckless charge on a public facebook thread that the black bloc had not only “derailed” the protest, but that a black bloc participant had punched an innocent Syrian Muslim bystander for no reason. On that very same thread, a person who was at the event and witnessed what she was talking about said it was not a black bloc participant who punched the person. Wolf ignored his comment. No ISO cadre thought it necessary to contextualize or examine her charge in any way, and it was simply accepted as a fact, and any questioning of that fact as not conducive to good discussion.
Another blogger who was at the event described the incident this way:
“A handful of the #ProudBoys who remained on the sidewalk started talking shit to the Antifa, and again, someone tried to suckerpunch, only this time there was no barricades to hide behind. That the person in a fancy suit who got hit squarely in the nose was allegedly a ‘Syrian Muslim’ is absolutely irrelevant. He chose what side he was on that night, wanted to play with Nazi boys who thought they could play rough and quickly learned they were out of their league: he got his clock cleaned, and was slowly led away by one of his GOP friends, crying. End of story.”
Sherry Wolf’s fellow ISO cadre, Derek Wright, took the notion of a crazed individual black bloc participant, and broadened it to the entire group. It was no longer unaccountable thugs that we needed to worry about, but the possibility that the black bloc at the event was controlled by police:
“This small group of adventurists was doing about as much to provoke the police to attack as I've ever seen. Sometimes, weeks or years later, it comes to light that some of these people were actually undercover cops, deployed to stir things up and make the protest look bad, to make people afraid to participate, and/or to give the rest of the force an excuse to unleash.”
Another outraged observer, Lee Fang, of the Intercept, who is tight with many in the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), jumped on the “Black block punched a Syrian” bandwagon. Over a period of a couple of days, he tweeted down anyone who dared support black bloc participation in the Milo protest. Fang blamed “antifa,” painting them as the aggressor, who attacked “muslim bystanders.”
Then Fang inadvertently showed the conservative politics behind his outrage, not only mischaracterizing the black bloc at the Milo event, but claiming that the 1968 riots gave us Nixon, and that the Rodney King riots gave us the 1994 Crime Bill.
Fang blames the victims for the draconian actions of the state. Today that would be like blaming Ferguson protesters for Trump. Even fellow Intercept associate Jeremy Scahill jumped in to disagree with Fang’s line of argumentation. Connor Kilpatrick of Jacobin defended Fang’s attacks on the antifa/black bloc.
The alt-Right, white nationalists, right wing militias, stormfronters, neo-Nazis, and 4chan right wingers announced an April 15th rally in Berkeley. It was a follow up to the February 1st Milo event, and the March 4th alt-Right incursion into Berkeley. People knew what this was about, and they knew it looked like it was escalating. The call went out on alt-Right and fascist social media. It was clear the intent was to intimidate and street-fight the Left in Berkeley, humiliate the Left in the birthplace of the 1960s Free Speech Movement (FSM), and to use that to recruit nationally. It was known for weeks that they were mobilizing. On April 6th, a call for solidarity and a show of numbers to confront the white nationalists went out on Indy Bay.
See this Berkeleyside article to get an idea of how openly brazen the calls for violence by the alt-right, fascists, and white nationalists had been on social media:
The Berkeley chapter of the DSA did not mobilize a presence at the rally, instead promoting this April 15th event, “Blueprints for a Future”:
Others on the Left also felt no need to go to confront the white nationalists and attended a “Tax March” in San Francisco centered around demanding to see Trump’s tax returns.
The ISO writes in this article that they were also not there, but rather than consider whether that was a mistake or not, they shame anti-fascists who were there, portraying them as undependable:
“Moreover, the fights on the streets of Berkeley on April 15 showed that we also can’t depend on a small group of anti-fascists to rebuff the far right alone. The Berkeley community rallied with us against Donald Trump on Jan. 20 and in defense of the campus against Milo Yiannopoulos on Feb. 1. But without an organized mass movement, those who want to confront the far right will conclude that the only available choice to fight back is property destruction and street fighting, while others will conclude that this is no choice at all.”
One could ask “how organized is the leadership of this coming mass movement if you didn’t even mobilize against a white nationalist assault everyone knew was coming?” Instead, the ISO poses a false dilemma between physically confronting the fascists, defined as property destruction and street fighting, or “having an organized mass movement” whose actions are not clearly defined. They do say they want to “outnumber” the fascists, and again, one could ask “why not on April 15th ?” It must not have seemed important.
As it turned out, those community members who did show up to the white nationalist march on April 15th were at times out-organized and out-muscled by the marchers. Many were beaten, badly. The alt-Right was able to claim a public victory on the home turf of the Free Speech Movement, a huge recruitment coup. It could have been different if the other groups who are now claiming they were always down to challenge the white nationalists had shown up.
But it’s worse than not showing up. The standard line for the left groups became anti-antifa. Not so much a critique, but a casual dismissal. “Todd Hitler,” an ironic Left twitter handle, tweeted out this joke at the expense of the Berkeley community, and Lee Fang and Connor Kilpatrick gleefully joined in to rub salt in the wounds of the Berkeley comrades.
Kilpatrick later defended this as a reference to a Zizek lecture, but does it matter? Is it in anyway funny to mock a community, or even a group, that had just been attacked by actual militia members, including cross-fit physiqued nazis and white nationalists? A lot of people in the “socialist” milieu thought so.
Many of the people who were confronting white nationalists in the street had noticed the absence of the liberal, social democratic, and sectarian groups that ridiculed black bloc and antifa. A piece on the It’s Going Down site mentioned a March 4th white nationalist rally in Berkeley:
“Also, the absence of big left-wing, socialist, and liberal organizations on March 4th is also telling. These people want to write essays about how those that stand up to the far-Right are the “real fascists,” but when push comes to shove to stand up to the actual fascists, they are nowhere to be found.”
Shame on the “anti-free-speech Left” for shutting down Milo (?)
For some reason, the main concern for many socialists in the face of the escalating white nationalist assaults was preserving “free speech.”
On March 5th, a day after the white nationalists marched again on Berekeley, James Heartfield, an ex-Marxian turned pro-market contrarian posted a “funny meme” reiterating his feeling that Berkeley as a whole had turned against free speech. The real bad guys were the ones who shut down the Milo event and who confronted fascists as they rampaged through town on March 4th.
At this point we can consider if Milo is just exercising his right to free speech or if his actions were more of a tangible threat.
Milo advocates for punishing and neutralizing “sanctuary campuses,” that defend immigrants from deportation. Using a bizarre mix of liberal rhetoric and Right wing populism, he calls on people to report “illegal immigrants” to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and asks audiences to ““think hard about working class people, about poor people; think hard about the disabled who are desperately in need of state care; think hard about students in public universities in need of federal funding; and think hard, and mostly, about women and homosexuals.”
The ongoing waves of deportation, which had massively increased under Obama and which Trump has promised to increase even more, obviously qualify as acts of violence against the most vulnerable in the US. Livelihoods and families are being torn apart on a mass scale for the purpose of labor control.
Milo had also engaged in hate speech against individual students at his previous campus talks. When speaking at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, he attacked a transgender student “displaying her name and photo prominently onscreen.” Milo ranted against the trans woman calling her “he” and then playing on the trendy Right wing fear mongering over trans people as molesters: “I’ll tell you one UW-Milwaukee student that does not need to man up.” He then showed the student’s photo. “Have any of you come into contact with this person?” he asked. “This quote unquote nonbinary trans woman forced his way into the women’s locker rooms this year. He got into the women’s room the way liberals always operate, using the government and the courts to weasel their way where they don’t belong. In this case he made a Title IX complaint. Title IX is a set of rules to protect women on campus effectively. It’s couched in the language of equality, but it’s really about women, which under normal circumstances would be fine, except for how it’s implemented. Now it is used to put men in to women’s bathrooms.”
But Title IX is not just “about women.” Regarding Title IX “Supreme Court decisions and guidance from the U.S. Department of Education have given it a broad scope covering sexual harassment and sexual violence.”
The student Milo attacked was shamed to the point of dropping out of UW. His actions directly resulted in her being excluded from educational opportunity based on her gender identity. This is exactly what Title IX is meant to defend against.
In tow with the Milo tour circuit were various fascist groups, tabling and recruiting. These included Nathan Damigo’s Identity Evropa. “The organization itself is the result of a rebranding of The National Youth Front, also headed by Nathan Damigo. The National Youth Front served as the youth wing of the Neo-Nazi American Freedom Party, which is headed by long-time white supremacist William Johnson, wealthy corporate lawyer.”
Milo was a high profile writer at Breitbart magazine which openly champions the alt-Right. Top Trump advisor Steve Bannon “became executive chair of Breitbart News LLC, the parent company of Breitbart News” in 2012. “Under his leadership, Breitbart took a more alt-right and nationalistic approach toward its agenda.Bannon declared the website "the platform for the alt-right" in 2016.”
Then there was Milo’s article wrongly alleging that Shaun King, an important Black Lives Matter activist, was not really black an action that could have destroyed King’s life, but didn’t.
You may still agree with James Heartfield’s meme, that portrayed an “anti-free speech” degenerate and implying that it is our duty to get out there and put our bodies in the way of such “regressive” forces as the alt-Right calls the Left. Or, you might think that direct action to shut down a bully with a proven record of intimidation and hate speech which had directly resulted in violence and human suffering was worth doing. Milo’s media platform is global in scale, with lucrative six-figure book deals and access to most corporate media at the highest levels. Were Berkeley community members wrong to turn out and shut down his organizing against some of the most vulnerable?
Mario Savio famously said, when talking about the liberal business model of higher education that “there is a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can't take part; you can't even passively take part, and you've got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you've got to make it stop. And you've got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you're free, the machine will be prevented from working at all!”
There comes a time when free speech results in direct action. Just as we can’t rely on the National Labor Relations Board to provide fair outcomes for workers, meaning that workers have historically had to break the law to make gains, we can’t rely on the notion of civil liberties to prevent Right wing programs from doing very real damage to our communities.
With a bit of context, Heartfield’s “free speech” meme, and his related posting and writing on the subject, comes off as typical “Spiked” reactionary bourgeois fetishizing of rights and liberty over the necessity to resist power with power.
We Do “Materialism”
Around this same time the alt-Right began gaining attention, a new podcast hero emerged on the Left with his show “Dead Pundit’s Society.” Adam Proctor uses a thoughtful but almost overly flattering interview style for his excellent guests, tapping the current academic and social media trends, researching them thoroughly, and knowing what questions to ask. He’s also an organizer who is openly excited about his participation with the Democratic Socialists of America. His show stands out in bringing the voices that need to be heard right now, and in providing critiques of “woke” politics that lack class analysis. Nonetheless, Proctor’s political analysis has its own flaws.
In an interview with Freddie de Boer, the two men talk and laugh about the violent events in Berkeley and elsewhere, although they may as well be commenting from another planet. We learn that those confronting white nationalists in the street are actually enabling them, bringing more attention and legitimacy to their cause they would not have otherwise received. It turns out, there was zero threat to Berkeley, given that these were “toy Nazis” who came to “LARP” (Live Action Role Play-- a kind of flesh and blood Dungeons & Dragons grown up fantasy where no one really gets hurt). Also, those who did go out to confront the white nationalists are “mostly affluent” and do nothing to change the world. How de Boer knows, or could prove this is never questioned, he’s just right. Anyone challenging the alt-right physically is under the delusion that we live in 1930s Germany. They would have known that the black bloc is a dead form had they “done their reading.” After about an hour of this deep analysis, the two have a good laugh, having dispatched forever with those stupid ultraleft adventurist, affluent poseurs with no class analysis. Only idiots would confront these people in the streets.
“Josiah Walrus” challenged Proctor on his DPS facebook page. Josiah gives examples of some people who went to confront the white nationalists, explaining that they were working class, class-struggle folks. He mentioned a union organizer and a working class historian who were there, and what he considered better and more accurate on the ground report backs from It’s Going Down and Libcom. You can read the debate here:
It becomes apparent that Proctor really is not at all familiar with the present situation in, or the history of, the Bay Area radical political milieu in all it’s varied forms. His commentary comes off as boilerplate Leninist rhetoric against “ultralefts” and he can’t quite grapple with a varied and colorful Bay Area radical history.
Walrus later confronted Freddie de Boer, who also responded, on twitter, again giving no indication that he had any deep knowledge of the people he condemned as know nothings whose very essence killed meaningful class struggle. Josiah’s twitter debate with Freddie de Boer is here:
Long after many high profile DSA members and supporters, along with Jacobin editors, had mocked the “affluent LARPers” Jacobin finally started running articles by academics on the history of the black bloc, which they apparently found a new respect for given its (conditional) popularity among the Left. This is known as “tailing” and is very common among sectarian Left groups.
In May of 2017, Angela Nagle released her long researched book Kill All Normies which is in part a critique of the post-modern, identitarian, “Social Justice Warrior” Left. Proctor interviewed her for Dead Pundits Society. We get a sense of the degree to which their self assured dismissal of the alt-Right violence misses the very real threat they pose. It almost feels like a bad 70s disaster movie where “experts” tell us the tragedy the audience knows is coming is “not a real concern”:
Adam Proctor: These alt-Right folks like we saw in the Berkeley skirmish [laughs], they’re toy nazis. They don’t have any real street power. These are not the Brown Shirts of 1930. They are not, sort of, these militarized paratrooper, shock troopers, of the far right, the established parties of fascism. So you know, going to war with them in the street, it’s like LARPers. Right?
Angela Nagle: Mmmm.
Adam Proctor: These Live Action Role Playing, padded weapons, nerds that go around and beat each other up in fields and things like that.
Angela Nagle: Yeah.
Then Nagle makes a long statement about the left being mired in outmoded ideology and that materialist analysis and solutions are the only way forward. Fair enough, but then this:
Adam Proctor: One of the things I’ve been hearing since I aired my first two episodes is “Ok Adam, you’re down with a materialist analysis? Well howbout this? These people are defending their communities against Nazis and how dare you ever speak out against someone like that! You’re just one of those liberals. You believe that change can only happen at the ballot box…. What do you say to that?
Angela Nagle: Well. First of all, the situation that we’ve got ourselves in is a result of the fact that the anti-free-speech people have called everyone a Nazi and not let anyone speak for so long. Now, as I’ve said, the wolf has actually arrived. We actually do now have, you know, people who have these beliefs on the street who are violent. And of course, America has a dormant kind of militia movement. I mean, this could be terrible if it keeps going, you know?
Several things stand out, but most importantly we have to question whether this is “materialist” analysis at all. Marx and Engels were known for their “workers’ inquiries” in which they would go to or send fellow socialists to the factories or workplaces of the proletarians armed with questionnaires with a hundred or so detailed questions. Each worker would answer and write information pertinent to explaining their work and personal lives, their affiliations with unions, and so on. It was on the ground data gathering, but more than that, a personal connection to the workers in the capacity of listening to them and learning about their lives.
Do Marxian Academics Dream of Affluent LARPers?
Having lived in the Bay Area for 18 years, and having been radicalized there by fellow workers, many of whom were at the April 15th white nationalist assault on Berkeley, I know this picture of privileged, suburban, affluent, LARPing, fools who wouldn’t know their class from a hole in the ground is completely wrong.
The Bay Area Left carries influences from Bohemians and soap boxers to black dock and industrial workers from the South, ILWU unionists, General Strikers, Pacific islander organizers, anarcho-syndicalists, hippies, radical school teachers, working class historians, feminists, situationists, Leftist hip hop artists, Troqueros, wobblies, LGBTQ unionists and activists, Filipino, Chinese, and other ethnic workers’ associations, anti-gentrification direct action radicals, anti-nuclear canvassers, transit union old school communists, fare strikers, Mime Troupe playwrights, Free Speech Movement activists, and combinations and legacies beyond any you might think of if you don’t know the place.
The youthful and stupid self-image and self-efficacy of de Boer, Proctor, Nagle, and others--who see themselves as an intellectual vanguard that has uncovered the long lost art of class analysis in a world of Suey Park style identitarians-- informs their narrative where everyone outside their radical academic clique or sectarian party is likely a flake. They tend to lump together everyone confronting fascists with “the anti-free speech people,” meaning the hyper politically correct college student types who see cultural appropriation in every Burrito or white person with dread locks. That is a big, sloppy, rhetorical move. It’s clear they’re snow blind from the glint of the last Adolph Reed article they read but failed to understand, and failed to connect to any inquiry or actual assessment of the balance of forces in the situation they think they’re analyzing. That’s not materialism.
Karl Marx wrote in The German Ideology: “The premises from which we begin are not arbitrary ones, not dogmas, but real premises from which abstraction can only be made in the imagination. They are the real individuals, their activity and the material conditions under which they live, both those which they find already existing and those produced by their activity. These premises can thus be verified in a purely empirical way.”
Maybe Proctor, Nagle, and others wanting to understand the “real individuals” in Berkeley could have talked to them and asked them about their views, lives, work, struggles, and what they hoped to accomplish by meeting reactionary marauders in the street. Nah, just refer to your notes on “social justice warriors,” bring in some experts and that will suffice. They see the pictures of the battles, and think they can extrapolate from those visual cues, the entire political character of those opposing the white nationalists.
A radical union organizer comrade was at the Milo event, the March 4th, and the April 15 confrontations with the white nationalists in the Bay Area (with many other radical class struggle comrades), and had this to say to Adam Proctor on a recent thread: “My experience attending the street confrontations with the far-right in Berkeley was that the only reason there were so many physical altercations was because we were seriously outnumbered, in no small part because the greater Bay Area left had been gleefully engaging in counter-organizing against anarchists and anti-authoritarians at least since the Oscar Grant protests, and certainly in a big way since Occupy. By the time white nationalists showed up to goosestep around Berkeley, the Left had all the rhetorical excuses it needed to comfortably ignore the call-out to oppose the right-wing rallies. Whether they were marching down Market Street to see Trump's tax returns, or blabbering away in a panel discussion, or gathering for a massive "organizer training", (all of these are examples of actual things happening on the exact days that we confronted the right in the streets), none felt moved by the compulsion to come form a massive block of resistance against open white nationalism on the streets of Berkeley and provide back-up to comrades getting their asses beat by ex-military and likely off-duty pigs trucked in from the Central Valley. THERE WAS ACTIVE DISCOURAGEMENT BY THE LEFT AGAINST JOINING US IN THE STREETS. That is an actual thing that I think needs to be reckoned with. Look, these assholes are planning more racist rallies here in August. If enough of us actually show up, no need for anyone to throw a punch. We can back them up just by sheer overwhelming numbers. Hope we can count on you all to be there this time.
Proctor did not respond.
I’ve shown examples of the following high profile socialists ridiculing black bloc, antifa, and the broader communities engaged in direct action against white nationalists and alt-Right incursions.
Sherry Wolf: ISO
Derek Wright; ISO
Lee Fang: The Intercept
Connor Kilpatrick: Jacobin and DSA
Adam Proctor: Dead Pundits Society and DSA
Angela Nagle: Zero Books
James Heartfield: Spiked
Freddie de Boer: Brooklyn College, City University of New York
I’ve provided quotes as evidence that their critiques have often been disingenuous, lacking in solidarity, and poorly grounded in relevant information regarding those they were condemning. We’ll have to do better in our efforts at comradely debate and analysis.
I offer this article by “Lifelong Wobbly” as a model of comradely criticism in the materialist tradition: “Tigertown Beats Nazis Down: Reflections on Auburn and Mass Anti-fascism”
For the purposes of this essay the terms “alt-Right,” “fascist” and “white nationalist” were used interchangeably, not as exact descriptors of the essence of the forces of the Right involved in these rallies, but to identify factions that made up a diversified totality.
Thanks to Huli and Hieronymous
Comrade Motopu, August 2017