Solidarity after Charlottesville

Like everyone else watching the Charlottesville protests, I was appalled by the violence and hateful rhetoric displayed by white nationalists over the weekend. I cannot, however, say I was surprised. Chants of “blood and soil” and “Jews will not replace us” as a group of fascists surrounded to defend a Confederate monument wielding Tikki torches (okay, I laughed a little at that) put the lie to the quaint notion that antisemitism is dead and gone in this country. Just like in the past, it seems to reemerge whenever there are economic anxieties and racial unrest, linked closely with anti-black racism as well as anti-Hispanic and anti-Muslim xenophobia.

Emma Green made this point three days ago in an article which ran in The Atlantic: “Anti-black and anti-Jewish sentiment have long been intertwined in America. When the Jewish factory worker Leo Frank was wrongfully convicted of murder and lynched in 1915, two new groups simultaneously emerged: the Anti-Defamation League, which fights against bigotry and anti-Semitism, and the second Ku Klux Klan, which began by celebrating Frank’s death.” Similarly, Eric Ward’s Political Research essay “Skin in the Game: How Antisemitism Animates White Nationalism” forcefully argues that “antisemitism is not a sideshow to racism within white nationalist thought.” (It’s worth reading also for its insights into the early LA punk scene).

Regarding various “antis” like anti-fascism and anti-imperialism, readers of this blog will know I am influenced by the Bordigist critique of anti-fascism and the councilist critique of anti-imperialism. Nevertheless, this does not mean that fascism and imperialism are not to be opposed. If these political orientations are to be salvageable for Marxists at all, it is important to acknowledge most forms of actually-existing anti-fascism and anti-imperialism are awful. The best anti-fascists and anti-imperialists out there already admit this, of course, and know that in doing so they are not denigrating the lives that have been lost or the sacrifices that have been made.

Marx understood this well enough himself, writing in 1850: “Our task is that of ruthless criticism, much more against ostensible friends than against open enemies. And in maintaining this as our position, we gladly forego cheap democratic popularity.” Internationalist Perspective put out a good response a little while ago entitled “Antifa? No Thanks,” in which they claimed: “By framing the conflict as one between fascism and democracy, the partisans of antifa are making the first choice seem logical and necessary, and are thereby, despite their combativeness, acting as water carriers for capitalism.”

Horkheimer’s old adage from 1939 still rings true: “Whoever is not willing to speak of capitalism should keep quiet about fascism as well.” Gilles Dauvé’s debate with the British group Aufheben is worth revisiting in this context, in order:

  1. Jean Barrot [Gilles Dauvé], Fascism/Antifascism (1982)
  2. Aufheben, “Review of Barrot’s Fascism/Antifascism (1992)
  3. Gilles Dauvé, “Reply to Aufheben” (1998)

Opposition to fascism does not a communist make. The chorus of tweets from Mitt Romney, Marco Rubio, Nancy Pelosi, and other reactionaries condemning the white nationalists lend credence to Bordiga’s infamous quip that “the worst product of fascism is anti-fascism.” Politically, perhaps, it can be. Although I’d say that the human toll, the dead and brutalized bodies scarred by fascist goons, is fascism’s worst product in absolute terms. Going to the rally at Union Square on Sunday, there were a fair number of signs from the woke Democratic Party “resistance,” showing that class collaborationism indeed remains a real danger.

Still, I think Bordiga underestimated fascism. It should be said that his main experience of fascism was with the original Italian version, however, and he by no means was left untouched by it: he spent four years rotting in a fascist prison, from 1926 to 1930, and was placed under house arrest from 1930 to 1943 by Mussolini, forbidden to write about politics. He only began writing again after Nazism and fascism had been driven out of Europe (save in Spain, where it stayed in power for decades). Trotsky was better when it came to fighting fascism, in my view, writing in 1934 about the need for workers to organize autonomously:

It would be the worst stupidity to hope that a democratic government, even headed by the social-democracy, could save the workers from fascism by a decree prohibiting the fascists to organize, to arm, etc. No police measures will help if the workers themselves will not learn to deal with fascists.

Below you can read a stirring speech delivered yesterday in Amsterdam by a Dutch comrade. He’s among the best anti-fascists I know. Anti-fascism is useful for fighting Nazis. Not so great for everything else. Exrapolating an entire political perspective from opposition to fascism is a nearly impossible task. Still, there is a lot to be said for fighting Nazis.

Speech on Charlottesville

Job Polak (Jop Kaal)
AFA Amsterdam
August 17, 2017

Thank you all for coming. Because the antifascist movement has always been international in scope, I will deliver my speech in English in the hope that everyone will understand.

We are here tonight because six nights ago a mob of hundreds of torch-wielding fascists descended on Charlottesville Virginia USA. We are here because these fascists — throwing Nazi salutes and screaming “white power,” “blood and soil,” “hail Trump,” and “the Jews will not replace us” — encircled a small group of brave students, spit on them, maced them, and beat them up. We are here tonight because the next day the fascists were out in force again. They were so heavily armed and ready for bloodshed that the even the militarized US police, who are always ready to murder black people, retreated and left the people of Charlottesville to fend for themselves.

We are here tonight because later that same day a fascist terrorist intentionally plowed his car into a group of antifascist protesters, hurting dozens and murdering a brave 32-year-old woman named Heather Heyer. May she rest in power. We are here in deep sorrow and pain for those we lost or who got hurt. We are here in seething anger because of what happened, and because people like Donald Trump dare to say that the people resisting fascists are just as bad or even worse than the fascists out there killing us.

But we are also here in resolute defiance.

It must be remembered that the fascist terror attack which murdered Heather happened only after the people of Charlottesville resoundingly defeated the fascists that day. Thousands came out to resist their hate with solidarity, with prayer, with their words, with their bodies and when needed with their fists. From the moment the first colonists landed in what would eventually become the United States of America, there were indigenous people who resisted them. From the moment the first slave ships docked in the South, black people resisted against all odds with uprisings and bloody rebellions. During Jim Crow and racial segregation, when the Ku Klux Klan terrorized the countryside, black people and their allies fought back with non-violent marches, with boycotts, and (when needed) often with guns.

Make no mistake. The statue of the traitorous Confederate general and defender of slavery — which the protests last weekend were nominally about — was not built during the Civil War. It was only installed on that prestigious university campus much, much later, around the same time Hitler came to power in Germany. Unmistakably, it signaled “no black people allowed” and “do not get any ideas,” all while screaming “white power.”

Yet today there are many black students on that campus, who are not afraid to demand this hateful symbol be torn down. And if it is not removed by the authorities, they will eventually pull it down themselves. No matter how many street brawlers or cops they send to protect it, no matter who sits in the White House.

Because wherever there is hate, there is also resistance and solidarity. Those images from last weekend hit home because we know too well where mobs of torch-wielding, hate-spewing Nazis — cynically tolerated by those in power — can lead. Yet we also know we can defeat them with resolute resistance and unified solidarity, even through the worst horrors they can inflict on us.

I for one would not be standing here tonight if not for antifascist resistance and solidarity.

Exactly 75 years ago today, on the 17th of August 1942, a Dutch Jewish communist, worker for an illegal newspaper from Haarlem was herded in to a gas chamber in Auschwitz-Birkenau. Four years earlier he lost his 22-year-old son, who went to Spain to defend the democratically-elected government against a fascist coup. His second eldest went too, surviving a Francoist concentration camp. Upon returning from Spain, starved nearly to death, this younger son joined the anti-Nazi resistance along with him. That brave man, his father — gassed for being a communist, an antifascist, and defender of free speech (on top of being a Jew) — was my great-grandfather.

Nevertheless, the youngest son of the man’s three sons, my grandfather, lived. People who didn’t even know him risked their lives to hide a young Jewish man from the Nazis. They shared their precious food during the famine, in winter. He survived because the resistance shot traitors, Jew-hunters, and Nazis, and because millions of young men and women from the United States, Russia, and other countries all over the world came here, to Europe, and to Asia. They gave their lives to defeat the Nazis before they could establish their “thousand year Reich” of “white, Aryan power” by cleansing their lands of Jews and other undesirables, who they claimed could not wait to replace them.

Yet today — as Donald Trump defends the new KKK and smears us antifascists, sitting in a office with a bust of Martin Luther King — there are also popularly-elected racists and fascists in the Dutch parliament who walk everyday past the big book honoring those who fell in the fight against the Nazis. And these fascists have the audacity to claim they are the real new resistance because they want to close our borders for refugees. They scapegoat people for their religion, their ethnicity, or the color of their skin while warning that “those Muslims are coming to replace you.”

Again today there are a rising number of people, in our own families as well as in power, who say that those who resist these fascists and racists are just as bad or even worse than those who want to murder. They may say that they do not approve of the fascist methods, but to a degree share their frenzy whipped up fears, their anger, their prejudice, and their wish for a strongman to set it all right for them. Those people were here before as well, and eventually made the best Nazis, my grandfather always said.

We defeated them then, and we will defeat them now. But we will need to fight them everywhere, anytime, with every tool and weapon at our disposal. And like then we clearly wont be able to trust those who say they lead us to do the right thing and that they will not fan the flames of hate for their own gain.

But we will have to do it ourselves and all together.
For ourselves, for our loved ones, and for complete strangers.
On our streets, in the media, in the halls of power, and in far away places like the USA or on the Mediterranean Sea.
So that the deaths of people like Heather Heyer will not have been in vain.
An injury to one is an injury to all.
¡No pasarán! Never again!

(Job Polak)

7 thoughts on “Solidarity after Charlottesville

  1. While the content of the “anti-anti-fascist” critique coming from the Italian ultraleft has a lot going for it, it’s difficult to not find some of its presentation as rhetorical posturing. Dauvé, for instance, speaks of “revolutionary anti-fascism” as a contradiction in terms — but this only really makes sense if you accept his definition of anti-fascism as essentially identical to “frontism” (united, popular, or otherwise).

    In truth, there’s plenty of groups which identify with or call themselves antifa — particularly anarchist ones — that agree one can’t simply counterpose the (bad) fascist state to the (good, or at least better) democratic one, and that to speak of fascism one must also speak of capitalism. It’s not even clear to me that most “actually existing antifa” fall under this critique, unless you’re including persons and organizations that deliberately steer away from the term “antifa” (and usually even “anti-fascism” — although that might be changing soon).

  2. Ross highlights problems which must be addressed, yet Polak’s rather pedestrian speech contains some of the evils the former identifies…

    In the fact checking department: Leo Frank was not a factory worker, his family owned the place, which undermines Green’s point. And I don’t know much about the case in question–watched a documentary on the subject which we washed down with ample quantities of fermented barley–but the little I do know suggests he’s guilty.

    • Frank was management, so a white-collar worker. His uncle owned the pencil factory where he was employed. But the case against him was extremely weak, and marred by contradictory testimony. It would have been thrown out in nearly any courtroom today. Regardless, Frank did not deserve to be lynched.

      Polak’s speech was intended more as a personal testimony before a large audience than a critical reflection on the debates around anti-fascism, which is what I sought to provide in the first part. Not really sure what more you want from a popular address.

  3. Pingback: Antifascism: Pros and cons | The Charnel-House

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