The University of California at Berkeley is, as well all know, the place that gave us the Free Speech Movement in the early 1960s. The FSM played an important part in sparking the activism of the 1960s, not only in the United States but the world over.
A visit to Berkeley by the professional provocateur, Milo Yiannopoulos, sparked violent scenes when an anarchist, or perhaps better still a Nechayevian nihilist, black block prevented him from speaking doubtless much to Yiannopoulos’ delight.
The Berkeley action, and those similar going under the label “Antifa” or antifascist action, deserve to be roundly condemned. Using violence to suppress the expression of opinion, no matter how distasteful, is a fundamental breach of the principle of free speech, and no group can arrogate to itself the right to use violence to unilaterally set the bounds of permissible discourse in society.
One of the key principles of anarchism is the notion of performative revolution; the way in which the struggle in capitalist society is conducted will prefigure the type of society that will replace it. For example, an authoritarian means of struggle led by a hierarchical vanguard party, as with the Bolsheviks, will result in a highly authoritarian post capitalist social order.
Anarchists, well prior to 1917, had made this argument, and it remains the most striking example of a prediction in the social and political sciences to have become true, and that uniformally in case after case after case.
To use violence to set the bounds of permissible discourse in society now prefigures that violence would be used to restrict free speech in post capitalist society, should those revolutionary groups responsible for it succeed in achieving the transformation of capitalism. If this is not the case then those anarchists that participate in the violent suppression of free speech, by no means all, tacitly repudiate the idea of performative revolution.
Anarchism is of course all about freedom, in terms of both negative liberty and positive liberty, but the participation of anarchists in violent anti fascism demonstrates how thin that commitment to freedom is among many anarchists in the West.
The arguments made for the violent suppression of free speech are fanciful. Firstly, it is argued that fascist groups need to be denied a platform to air their views. Secondly, historical analogies are drawn with the case of Nazi Germany to support violent action. Thirdly, Antifa advocates argue that fascism will not simply go away thus requiring violence.
The no platform argument, clearly in contravention of free speech, does not deny fascist groups a platform to air their views as the internet does this irrespective of what happens at a fascist rally or speaking event. More importantly, however, anti fascist action provides fascist groups with a spectacular platform. Violent confrontations provoke widespread media coverage, which fascist and neo Nazi groups would otherwise not receive.
Nobody gives fascism more of a platform than Antifa. This is very important for fascist groups because their overriding strategic objective is to get out of the political ghetto, and rolling confrontations serves as a means to mobilise, not demobilise, those with racist, nationalist, and violent attitudes and sentiments.
Violent anti fascist action leads to a predictable escalation of violence. When engaging in political action one must always weigh up the predictable human consequences of one’s actions, and a spike in racist violence and fascist action is a predictable consequence of the actions of Antifa, which demonstrates how thin the concern is for the arresting of racist attacks.
The historical analogies to Nazi Germany made by advocates of the violent suppression of free speech are especially weak. For instance, the Berkeley events demonstrate how elastic the term “fascism” has become. Milo Yiannopoulos is an agent provocateur, he is neither a Nazi or a fascist. His views, if he really believes them, are disgraceful and distasteful but they don’t call for a one party authoritarian state based on the violent establishment of racial norms.
Furthermore, the pervasive street battles between left and right in Weimar Germany, instigated largely by the Nazis by the way, had the effect of helping Hitler come to power. They helped Hitler because the violence was used to demonstrate to wider nationalist and conservative opinion who was most steadfast in opposition to the left, and they helped Hitler because German society, especially the bourgeoisie, wanted a return to “law and order” directed at the pacification of the streets.
Yet Antifa would have you believe that street violence is the way to beat fascism. Indeed, the actions of Antifa provide support for Trump and the Alt-Right. Since the Berkeley events the Alt-Right media has had a field day, and it is one of the few things that have gone the Trump administration’s way politically during a turbulent first few weeks. The fact that the actions of Antifa help Trump and the Alt-Right demonstrates how thin the commitment to the victims of Trump is among those who violently suppress free speech.
The historical analogy also does not apply because the emergency provoked by the nationalist right in the West, that is of Trump, Farage, Le Pen and so on, is a specific historical situation. This is not 1941, or 1939 not even 1933. Trump, Farage and Le Pen are bad but they are not Hitler, Mussolini and Franco and the current specific historical situation does not warrant the violent suppression of free speech.
Consider 9/11 and the response to it. The left argued, correctly, that the response to jihadi terrorism should not involve the violation of basic liberal values. The left should apply that reasoning now. Our response to Trump and the Alt-Right must not conflict with fundamental principles of liberty such as freedom of speech.
Finally, Antifa advocates argue that those who argue contrary to them adopt a do nothing position regarding the Alt-Right, fascism and so on. They argue that these phenomena will not simply “go away.” It takes a peculiar type of intellectual arrogance to espouse this view, for it presupposes that this approach is the only available. Nobody in the wider Left adopts a “do nothing it will go away” position regarding the Alt-Right or fascism. Rather, much of the left has adopted different, more sensible, tactics to deal with this issue including nonviolent civil disobedience.
There are probably more advocates for lesser evil voting today than in November 2016, however many of those now calling for violence vociferously dismissed lesser evil voting so thus voting Donald J Trump for President of the USA.
That too shows how much concern they have for his victims.