Is it OK to Punch a Nazi in the Face?
by Vincent Kelley on September 11, 2017
“Is it OK to punch a Nazi in the face?” This has undoubtedly been the American left’s favorite rhetorical question to ask since alt-right poster boy Richard Spencer was punched following Trump’s inauguration earlier this year. I personally spent several hours on the internet enjoying various musical remixes to this Nazi getting punched, and would answer this question with a resounding “yes.” But is an affirmative response to this moral question enough to defeat the right wing?
In a widely-circulated write-up following the white supremacist terrorist attack in Charlottesville last month, philosophy professor Samir Chopra asks once again if it is OK to punch a Nazi in the face and offers a strong moral defense of Nazi-punching in his reply:
For many folks, the sight of Nazis marching in the streets, calling them sub-human, demanding they leave their homes and ‘go back’ to where ‘they came from,’ is already assault. Nazis don’t offer political critique: they reduce my humanity. (Read the Daily Stormer if you doubt this.) If they attempt to do that to my daughter, I will not wait for them to start swinging. I’ll start swinging first; there is, no, I repeat, no, talking with Nazis.
Chopra’s point is hard to argue with in moral terms, and his commitment to defending his daughter against Nazis is a moving testament to the experience of those living and growing up in a white world pitted against their humanity. However, while politics certainly raises moral questions, to reduce it to morality, as Chopra’s defense risks doing, demonstrates a grave misunderstanding of what politics is about.
The accepted realm of debate on the American left about antifa is an example of a broader problem that plagues its theory and practice: the conflation of morality with politics. Despite the newfound popularity of bashing “liberals,” the left has implicitly accepted the liberal terms of debate that push discussion about antifa—and any sort of militant protest for that matter—toward issues of morality. Indeed, while the left has been busy restating the rhetorical moral question, “Is it OK to punch a Nazi in the face?” it has not bothered to ask itself whether or not this is even the right question to ask in the first place.
I have no moral problem with street fighting—and the punches to the face that it entails—because I understand street fighting to be a constitutive element of contemporary capitalism, not simply a moral choice made by the fighters involved. Indeed, for many people in the world, street fighting is a reality of daily life. In the neighborhood where I live in Delhi, India there have recently been two street fights, one of which involved stone pelting and shut down multiple blocks for hours. These kinds of occurrences are not notable for their moral content, but are, rather, an intrinsic part of life in a city strapped for space, resources, and marked by sharp class and caste hierarchies.
In the US, where the spoils of imperialism have historically softened these kinds of contradictions, street fighting is framed in moral terms by the right, center, and left alike. Rather than being recognized first and foremost as a byproduct of an Empire in decline, today’s street fighters are ascribed the utmost moral agency and are understood to be key players in the American political arena. The reality is that, in this political moment, neither Nazis nor antifa fighting in the streets are a driving force behind much of anything besides another opportunity for sensationalized media coverage, which tends to portray the state as a neutral arbiter of conflict between “extremists” on the left and the right.
Danny Haiphong writes at Black Agenda Report that the liberal opposition to Trump, which has always been linked to the Democratic Party’s electoral agenda, relies on propagating the “myth of the white supremacist tidal wave.” By making a fetish of the repulsive worldview of a small, vocal far right, Haiphong notes that this ostensible opposition works to “steer the struggle against white nationalists toward a quest to purify the US of its ‘hateful ideas.’ However, exploitation and state violence does not emerge out of hate alone, if at all. Such relations are the product of a system of class rule.” In response to the material threat of collective rebellion by landless European indentured servants and African slaves, this system of class rule produced a racist ideology that turned Europeans into white people and Africans into Black people, an ideology that Barbara Fields and Karen Fields aptly refer to as the “soul of inequality in American life.” Any discussion of racism today must begin from an understanding of how and why it became and continues to be an imperative of class rule in the US.
Haiphong’s points on the roots of white supremacy and the political folly of fixating on its most extreme representatives are complemented by an editorial about antifa tactics and their accompanying “anti-racist” ideology that appeared in Race Traitor over 20 years ago. Noel Ignatiev and John Garvey argue that, in a society in which racism permeates every principal institution, “Racist and far-right groups in the main represent caricatures of reality in this race-defined society; at most they are efforts by a few to push the race line farther than what is currently considered proper.” Ignatiev and Garvey suggest that, “If that is the case, the ‘anti-racist’ movement is seriously misreading the roots of the race problem, and pursuing an erroneous strategy for addressing it.”
The line of critique employed by both Haiphong as well as Ignatiev and Garvey is not the same as the moralistic attacks on antifa that have been written by many authors, ranging from conservative Marc A. Thiessen at the Washington Post to leftist Chris Hedges at Truthdig. Rather than fetishizing and moralizing the spectacle of street fights between Nazis and antifa activists as Thiessen and Hedges do, these alternative critiques seek to understand the social contradictions that produce these spectacles in the first place. Only by understanding these contradictions can we begin to approach the debate surrounding antifa from a political, rather than purely moral, perspective.
The principal contradiction at this political juncture, that is not understood by those who cheerlead for antifa and subscribe to its attendant “anti-racist” ideology, is the widespread ruling class opposition to Trump’s response to the terrorist attack in Charlottesville. After his comments on Charlottesville, four CEOs resigned from the president’s Manufacturing Advisory Council: Merck Pharmaceuticals’s Kenneth Frazier, Intel’s Brian Krzanich, Under Armour’s Kevin Plank, and the president of the Alliance for American Manufacturing, Scott Paul. Not only has Trump faced censure from his most important allies in the corporate world, but also from numerous Republican Party leaders, whom, as Dan La Botz notes at New Politics, “criticized the president and some [even] condemned him.”
On the one hand, Trump is pandering to white nationalists through his refusal to condemn them after the Charlottesville terrorist attack. On the other hand, the vast majority of the liberal and conservative ruling class and punditry alike have been vocal in their opposition to white nationalism and to Trump himself. This contradiction is testament to Ignatiev and Garvey’s point that it is not so easy for the far right to “push the race line farther than what is currently considered proper.” Before Trump’s election, which also highlighted similar rifts within the ruling class, the diversity-obscured racism of the Obama administration and the vast majority of corporations was working just fine to produce the profits that justify the reproduction of a “race-defined society.”
This contradiction within the ruling class is absolutely pivotal for the left to grasp. As C.L.R. James wrote in his 1938 masterpiece, The Black Jacobins, on lessons from the Haitian Revolution:
The first sign of a thoroughly ill-adjusted or bankrupt form of society is that the ruling classes cannot agree how to save the situation. It is this division which opens the breach, and the ruling classes will continue to fight with each other, just so long as they do not fear the mass seizure of power.
If the American left understood that its own ruling classes are currently fighting amongst themselves, with the majority of their representatives supporting a more insidious neoliberal and imperial form of white supremacy than that of Trump or the alt-right, it would not prioritize street fighting with Nazis. Indeed, Nazi punching in the present political moment can only end up backfiring politically and obscuring the very contradictions within the ruling class that the left could wield to its advantage. The calls for economic nationalism that propelled both Donald Trump’s and Bernie Sanders’ challenges to the neoliberal status quo embodied by Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party have unleashed ideological disarray not only within the ruling class, but also within the left itself. Until the left is able to understand the commonalities between Sanders and Trump voters, and the 90 million eligible voters who simply did not show up to the voting booth in the election, it will be unable to act upon conditions ripe for inter-racial and international solidarity between poor and working class people.
In Vice’s viral documentary on the white nationalist leaders who attended the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, even these figures themselves admit that they are still at a fledgling stage of asserting their politics. Far from a force ready to seize state power alone, prominent alt-right personality Christopher Cantwell said that, even in comparison to a weak left, the far right doesn’t “have the camaraderie [or] the trust levels that our rivals do.” Robert Ray of the Daily Stormer added that they are just beginning the process of “stepping off the internet.” In light of his firsthand understanding of power, Trump’s former chief strategist, Steve Bannon, agrees, calling the far right a “collection of clowns” and “a fringe element” that should be “crush[ed].” He added that, “the longer they [the Democrats] talk about identity politics, I got ’em. I want them to talk about racism every day. If the left is focused on race and identity, and we go with economic nationalism, we can crush the Democrats.”
While many sections of the far right will have trouble stepping off the internet, some of its organizations understand the kind of steps that will be necessary for it to become a serious political force on the ground. One such organization is the Traditionalist Worker Party (TWP). A white separatist group aligned with Neo-Nazism established in 2015 as the political wing of the Traditionalist Youth Network, the TWP understands that an organization like itself cannot recruit a base exclusively on the platform of white nationalism severed from appeals to broad material interests faced by poor and working class white people. The Party’s official propaganda includes slogans like these:
‘Democrats & Republicans Put Wall Street Greed Ahead of Main Street Values,’ ‘Appalachia Rise: Rise Up! Fight Back! Defend White Working Families,’ ‘Support Renewable Energy, New Jobs, New Opportunities, and a Bright Future for Our People,’ and ‘Break the Chains of Drug Addiction!’
The TWP is overtly attempting to appeal to dispossessed white people through a political line that employs the language of class in order to recruit members into a race-first politics. The commentary of TWP leader Matthew Heimbach, who also participated in the Charlottesville events, at an April rally in Pikeville, Kentucky is illustrative of the Party’s discursive gymnastics on race and class: “We want the black community to have voices to speak for them, the Latino community, the Asian community, other ethnic communities all deserve advocates but the white working class has no one on our side.” While Heimbach is right that the white working class does not have a political voice, the fact is that neither does the Black, Latino, or Asian working class, for which he, like much of the left, substitutes the language of “community.” By telling a truth and implying a lie, he encourages white workers to obscure their class interests with the blinding beam of whiteness.
This kind of right-wing identity chauvinism cannot be defeated by simply punching its proponents into silence and replacing it with an identity chauvinism of a left-wing variety. The TWP is very well aware of this response, which relies heavily on shame and guilt to ostensibly fight racism, and provides its own chauvinist answer: “100% European Identity, 0% White Guilt.” Perhaps left identity chauvinism based in shame and guilt is a morally righteous response to the white supremacism of groups like the TWP. But even if it is, very few white people—not just white nationalists—are receptive, and it takes many routines of the left’s own discursive gymnastics to explain how this approach is relevant to the Black, Latino, or Asian working class, which it has, like Heimbach of the TWP, divided into “communities” purportedly severed from class struggle.
When politics is about life and death, as Heather Heyer’s murder in Charlottesville should remind us if the violence of the status quo did not already, the line between being righteous and ineffective and being self-righteous and politically irrelevant is a thin one. In order to become relevant, the left must step away from its uncritical defenses of a politically immature antifa tendency. Instead, we must work to build strength on the ground that can, through bringing poor and working class people together across racial lines, expose the racial lies of groups like the TWP and ultimately wipe them off the political map. As an alternative to a politics based in shame and guilt, what we need is one that can, among other things, speak to the material interests of white workers (why concede this ground to groups like the TWP?) and, from this starting point, challenge white supremacy on the grounds that it is a material evil for the multiracial working class as a whole. This will take a lot more work than the calling out rituals and punching routines prescribed by liberal anti-racist politics and antifa activists.
In his one attempt to incorporate political strategy into an otherwise moralistic argument in favor of Nazi punching, Chopra argues that “the problem with the violence directed against the Nazis in 1930s Germany was that there simply was not enough of it,” and wishes that “every time the Nazis had held a rally, they had been greeted, not just with overwhelming numbers, but with a swift punch to the face.” With these brief remarks, bereft of evidence, Chopra manages to ignore the well-documented and instructive history that the rise of the Nazis in Germany was not a result of insufficient numbers of Nazis getting punched, but rather of the tragic failures of both the Social Democratic and Communist left to provide a feasible political alternative to the German working class. As Louis Proyect writes in his summary of this history at Counterpunch, “it was a perfect storm of reformism and ultraleft sectarianism that allowed Hitler to come to power, not an absence of street-fighting.”
Organizing work to combat the conditions that give rise to fascism must also be supported by self-defense organizations and people’s militias far more disciplined and strategic than the ragtag group of activists that make up antifa. Those who defend antifa on the grounds that it is necessary for the immediate protection of marginalized people from fascist violence are right to point to the need for militancy, but are wrong to place their hope in antifa, which has neither the organizational discipline nor the trust of the masses that are desperately needed for any serious militant mobilization.
Indeed, antifa is a far cry from the armed self-defense organizations, such as the Deacons for Defense and Justice, that have played a crucial role in the struggle against racism in America’s not-so-distant political past. Once they are developed, these kinds of organizations will eventually need to become offensive instruments of struggle capable not just of fending off the far right, but also of providing militant support for a mass movement at large.
I hate fascism and am not a pacifist, but I am under no illusions that haphazardly punching fascists in the face is in any way part of a serious strategy for combating fascism, let alone its material causes. As American Empire continues to disintegrate, violence like street fighting will become all the more common on its own, and we must strive to understand its causes which, more often than not, are far from moral ones. Indeed, until we can approach questions of violence from outside the confines of myopic moralizing, there is no hope of building a politics to struggle against fascism, let alone the status quo of bourgeois democracy that produces it. Instead of asking the question “Is it OK to punch a Nazi in the face?” we would be better served politically by asking the question, “Is punching a Nazi in the face a serious way to fight fascism”?
By all means, we should take the energy that is sparked from seeing a Nazi like Richard Spencer punched in the face and use it to our advantage. This is certainly “OK.” But let’s channel it into something that, unlike disorganized street fighting, has the potential to be politically effective in the struggle toward achieving the world we want to win, a world without fascism and the conditions of capitalism that produce it.
 While some have argued that “antifa” simply means “anyone against fascism,” this is not a particularly helpful definition since it sidesteps the reality that there are many people who are opposed to fascism, yet who don’t support the politics or tactics of those who identify as “antifa.”