On the Need for a Distinctly Libertarian Anti-Fascist Praxis

Much of the contemporary debate in libertarian circles about free speech and anti-fascist activism takes the form of asking whether libertarians should support or oppose the various actors operating under the name “antifa.” I find this framing of the issue inadequate and artificially limiting. First and foremost, it conflates the question of whether libertarians should oppose fascism with the question of how. Fascist entryists encourage this confusion because they want virulent anti-leftism to supplant a positive commitment to liberalism as the guiding light for libertarians. Socialists encourage it too. They’ve developed a set of tactics based on their priors about fascism and political struggle and change; they want people to fight fascism their way because they think it works and because fighting it their way advances their broader agenda.

Libertarians, though, don’t share those priors, at least not most of them. As such, we would expect a liberal anti-fascist praxis to be quite different than a socialist one. Unfortunately, as far as I know, no such distinctly libertarian praxis has been developed. In the wake of the second world war, liberals became primarily concerned with anticommunism, a focus which has only recently started to change. Not much in the way of libertarian anti-fascism can be found there.

Before and during the second world war, there isn’t much for us to build on, either. After a certain point, liberals were doing pretty much the same thing as everyone else to fight fascists–fighting a war against them. If you want to know how to win a war, guerrilla or conventional, you’ll have to ask someone else. There are a few exceptions to the general trend; the White Rose organization did admirable work under difficult circumstances, but subversive publications are only one small part of what really needs to be a much more comprehensive project.

There are also ideological problems with looking to the liberals of the past. The European liberals bought into the ideas of democracy and self-determination in ways that probably hurt their willingness and ability to resist fascism. Modern libertarians, especially liberal anarchists, have a much more skeptical view of democracy. I think Grayson English put it best:

There are two important implications here:

  1. Defending the electoral process is, at least in some contexts, entirely orthogonal to fighting fascism.
  2. Libertarians should be open to political action outside the democratic electoral process, and indeed to political action that rejects that process entirely as illegitimate.

So if we don’t have much to learn from our intellectual ancestors, we might hope to learn something from our enemies. This isn’t as unlikely an avenue as might be supposed. Marxist histories are often very valuable to libertarians because of the way they tend to decenter the state, and often times there are socialist strategies and approaches that work in spite of the economic and ethical ideas of the persons advancing them.

We can cherry-pick certain anti-fascist practices from the socialists. Not everything that socialists do to oppose fascism is a consequence of their own illiberal political lens; some of it is just the sort of thing you “learn by doing.” Unfortunately, I think there isn’t much that’s salvageable, and that most socialist anti-fascism is the fruit of a tainted tree. To see why, let’s consider the libertarian understanding of fascism and contrast it with the Marxist understanding.

What is Fascism?

Fascism is an authoritarian political system that is collectivist, corporatist, and racist. Political theorist Roger Griffin characterizes fascism as involving “palingenetic ultranationalism,” where “palingenesis” means rebirth. Fascists look back to a golden age, often more myth than fact, that can be reclaimed by throwing away liberal decadence. This means stifling “antisocial” or “inefficient” individual behavior. Private enterprise must be brought to heel and made to serve the interests of the state. Individuals must be taught to find value and meaning in life only through membership in the nation and service to the ethnostate.

Fascism is, furthermore, anti-intellectual in a peculiar way that bears discussing at some length.

Ayn Rand’s categorized fascists as “mystics of muscle,” a phrase I always found particularly evocative. From the Galt speech in Atlas Shrugged (1957):

The good, say the mystics of muscle, is Society—a thing which they define as an organism that possesses no physical form, a super-being embodied in no one in particular and everyone in general except yourself….Man’s mind…must be subordinated to the will of Society….Man’s standard of value…is the pleasure of Society, whose standards are beyond man’s right of judgment and must be obeyed as a primary absolute. The purpose of man’s life…is to become an abject zombie who serves a purpose he does not know, for reasons he is not to question….His reward…will be given on earth [not the afterlife]—to his great-grandchildren.

Rand famously saw an abandonment of the mind’s capacity for reason for the body’s unthinking brute force as the root of almost every problem, but in the case of fascism, the charge mostly sticks. Fascists generally reject Enlightenment values wholesale, including the ideal of good-faith discourse.

I quite like Sartre’s comment on this point, from Anti-Semite and Jew (1946):

Never believe that anti-Semites are completely unaware of the absurdity of their replies. They know that their remarks are frivolous, open to challenge. But they are amusing themselves, for it is their adversary who is obliged to use words responsibly, since he believes in words. The anti-Semites have the right to play. They even like to play with discourse for, by giving ridiculous reasons, they discredit the seriousness of their interlocutors. They delight in acting in bad faith, since they seek not to persuade by sound argument but to intimidate and disconcert. If you press them too closely, they will abruptly fall silent, loftily indicating by some phrase that the time for argument is past.

I offer the Sartre quote here, though, primarily by way of comparison to a similar but lesser-known passage from Ludwig von Mises in Omnipotent Government (1944):

The German nationalists had to face precisely the same problem as the Marxians. They also could neither demonstrate the correctness of their own statements nor disprove the theories of economics and praxeology. Thus they took shelter under the roof of polylogism, prepared for them by the Marxians. Of course, they concocted their own brand of polylogism. The logical structure of mind, they say, is different with different nations and races. Every race or nation has its own logic and therefore its own economics, mathematics, physics, and so on….In the eyes of the Marxians Ricardo, Freud, Bergson, and Einstein are wrong because they are bourgeois; in the eyes of the Nazis they are wrong because they are Jews. One of the foremost goals of the Nazis is to free the Aryan soul from the pollution of the Western philosophies of Descartes, Hume, and John Stuart Mill. They are in search of arteigen German science, that is, of a science adequate to the racial character of the Germans.

Polylogism has a peculiar method of dealing with dissenting views. If its supporters fail to unmask the background of an opponent, they simply brand him a traitor. Both Marxians and Nazis know only two categories of adversaries. The aliens—whether members of a non-proletarian class or of a non-Aryan race—are wrong because they are aliens; the opponents of proletarian or Aryan origin are wrong because they are traitors. Thus they lightly dispose of the unpleasant fact that there is dissension among the members of what they call their own class or race.

Is it any wonder, then, that we hear modern fascists calling white liberals “cucks?” On Mises’s account, it is to be expected. The community of reason is cosmopolitan; the fascist, who despises anything cosmopolitan and cherishes unthinking brutality in service of the ethnostate, can only (and must) mock the children of the Enlightenment as effeminate traitors. The fascist cannot convince (though he does not see this as a shortcoming) and so attempts to humiliate. “Winning,” in the sense of establishing superiority, is more important for him than being right.

This has necessarily only been a bird’s-eye view of the liberal conception of fascism, but a sufficiently clear pattern should emerge. Fascism is fundamentally illiberal in most any aspect you might consider.

Fascism is bad. Fascism is illiberal. Fascism is bad because it is illiberal. The whole point of fighting fascism is to rescue liberalism. Accordingly, a libertarian anti-fascist praxis should itself be liberal in character and aim. An anti-fascist praxis that averts fascism but doesn’t protect liberalism is worthless to the liberal.

The Marxist Conception of Fascism

Marxists view political conflicts as being not merely driven but determined by more fundamental economic conflicts, divided on class lines. The Marxist conception of fascism is no different. As best as I can tell, Leon Trotsky is representative of the broader Marxist approach to the topic, and he is, we shall see, consistent in his analysis across multiple sources.

In “Whither France?” (1934) Trotsky explains that fascism is the flailing reaction of the capitalist class to a self-inflicted crisis. Democracy is discarded because it is no longer getting the job done. The workers must be repressed with direct violence for the capitalists to maintain power, and the fascist militias are means to this end:

Of course, in France, as in certain other European countries (England, Belgium, Holland, Switzerland, the Scandinavian countries), there still exist parliaments, elections, democratic liberties, or their remnants. But in all these countries, the same historic laws operate, the laws of capitalist decline. If the means of production remain in the hands of a small number of capitalists, there is no way out for society. It is condemned to go from crisis to crisis, from need to misery, from bad to worse. In the various countries, the decrepitude and disintegration of capitalism are expressed in diverse forms and at unequal rhythms. But the basic features of the process are the same everywhere. The bourgeoisie is leading its society to complete bankruptcy. It is capable of assuring the people neither bread nor peace. This is precisely why it cannot any longer tolerate the democratic order. It is forced to smash the workers and peasants by the use of physical violence. The discontent of the workers and peasants, however, cannot be brought to an end by the police alone. Moreover, if it often impossible to make the army march against the people. It begins by disintegrating and ends with the passage of a large section of the soldiers over to the people’s side. That is why finance capital is obliged to create special armed bands, trained to fight the workers just as certain breeds of dog are trained to hunt game. The historic function of fascism is to smash the working class, destroy its organizations, and stifle political liberties when the capitalists find themselves unable to govern and dominate with the help of democratic machinery.

He had given the same analysis of German and Italian fascism specifically several years earlier in “What is National Socialism?” (1933):

German fascism, like Italian fascism, raised itself to power on the backs of the petty bourgeoisie, which it turned into a battering ram against the organizations of the working class and the institutions of democracy. But fascism in power is least of all the rule of the petty bourgeoisie. On the contrary, it is the most ruthless dictatorship of monopoly capital. Mussolini is right: the middle classes are incapable of independent policies. During periods of great crisis they are called upon to reduce to absurdity the policies of one of the two basic classes. Fascism succeeded in putting them at the service of capital.

For Trotsky, the appearance that fascist movements are populist uprisings is rooted in a trick. Fascists must use socialist rhetoric to gather the requisite support needed to advance the capitalist class’s agenda. He explains it as follows in “What is Fascism?: Extracts from a Letter to a Comrade,” The Militant V.3, Jan 16 1932., original letter Nov. 1931:

The fascist movement in Italy was a spontaneous movement of large masses, with new leaders from the rank and file. It is a plebian movement in origin, directed and financed by big capitalist powers. It issued forth from the petty bourgeoisie, the slum proletariat, and even to a certain extent from the proletarian masses; Mussolini, a former socialist, is a “self-made” man arising from this movement….The movement in Germany is analogous mostly to the Italian. It is a mass movement, with its leaders employing a great deal of socialist demagogy. This is necessary for the creation of the mass movement.

Given this historical-materialist analysis of fascism–i.e. that fascism is an expression of class war that emerges when the capitalist class can no longer maintain control using democracy–what follows, tactically speaking?

Socialist Anti-Fascist Praxis

What follows is that fighting fascism means fighting capitalism as such. It means the proletariat winning the class war and establishing communism. It means sweeping away liberalism and replacing it with the dictatorship of the proletariat. This point must be emphasized: for the Marxist, resorting to illiberal means and even preferring means that threaten liberalism are not unfortunate necessities of anti-fascist praxis. Rather, they’re part and parcel of the core project (Going back to Trotsky, see “Their Morals and Ours.”).

For socialists, “Punch Nazis” is simply the logic of the gulag, consistently applied. There’s no reason for them not to come out swinging–nothing they value is threatened by doing so. Liberal tolerance is just another obstacle, another attempt by the capitalist class to stave off the revolution. Socialists interpret liberal qualms about just punching fascists until fascism goes away as them being unserious about opposing fascism, tantamount to collaboration. The socialist does not care about the open society, and so does not share the liberal’s reservations about applying ever broader and more extreme violence to the problem.

What Motivates Nazi-Punching?

There is another facet to the centering of violence typical of socialist anti-fascist praxis, though not unique to it by any means, which I think bears mentioning here. To some degree, the centering of violence is rooted in ableist and sexist attitudes about what constitutes “serious” activism. When we talk about whether violence is a justified response, it’s common to contrast violent measures to those “short of” violence, implying a violent response is necessarily more extreme and more serious than a nonviolent one. Now, if violence were always necessarily the most efficacious response to a fascist threat, that would be that. But I think that most often, the whole question of efficacy is skipped, and skipped in part because violence is seen as manly and therefore obviously better than less-manly courses of action. It is the same sort of impulse you see in foreign policy debates, where the most serious politician is the one willing to kill the most people, or in criminal justice debates, where the most serious politician is the one willing to inflict the most pain and suffering on criminals–whether convicted or merely accused. It is the same sort of impulse, even, that contributes to the portrayal of state welfare as “serious” specifically because it involves violent coercion, and mutual aid as “unserious” specifically because it does not.

There is a certain group of people who are, essentially, spoiling for a fight first and opposed to fascism second, and it would do the cause a disservice to let them drive the discourse on resistance to fascism unopposed.

One of the advantages of nonviolent tactics, in contrast to street brawling, is that people who are not able-bodied men are full and equal participants in the fight, rather than being relegated to support roles. That isn’t sufficient reason by itself to prefer nonviolent methods, of course, and I’m definitely not suggesting that violent resistance to fascism is never justified or effective, but it’s certainly something to keep in mind as an opportunity cost of using violent tactics instead of nonviolent ones.

Punching on What Principle?

The foregoing all points toward the conclusion that the primary restriction on Marxist aggression is what they think they can get away with. They advocate punching people like Richard Spencer because they think (correctly) that people are unlikely to defend him, rather than for any principled reason.

It’s often asserted that punching Nazis is okay because they advocate an ideology that is inherently about violence, and that it doesn’t matter that they’re not actively engaged in planning or carrying out genocide right now–they’ve said they support as much, which is good enough. I don’t buy that for a minute. For one thing, by that standard, I’d be justified in rounding up Marxists and murdering them en masse, since they advocate policies which, if implemented, would without exaggeration directly and predictably cause the death of most people now living and a reversion of human society to a pre-industrial condition. In fact, I’d be justified in preemptive violence against almost anyone on the entire political spectrum, apart from pacifists and individualist anarchists.

Now, you might want to concede this point by saying that yes, it’s okay to assault political centrists for endorsing enormities. I’d even be pretty sympathetic to that point–the median voter is a moral monster in his or her politics and probably shouldn’t enjoy total impunity. I don’t think that’s what is going on, though–it seems pretty transparently to be a case of special pleading. The people making the “inherently violent ideology” argument have decided they want to assault people, and arrived at a plausible excuse for doing so.

Other arguments are even less compelling than the “inherently violent ideology” line.

So, at least as far as I can see, there’s no limiting principle here. That makes a liberal alliance with socialists against fascists even more problematic. We can’t simply join the socialists, because our interests are not aligned. They think we’re on the same team as the fascists–tools of the capitalists, class enemies of the proletariat. They’ll turn on us as soon as they think we’re no longer useful. Hide your toothbrush.

Free Speech Extremism Is a Bedrock Liberal Principle

Liberals, unlike socialists, do have reason to want to maintain strong norms against assaulting people who express certain opinions, or even merely hold them. This isn’t because communists and fascists are “better” at violence than us–that’s an open question. It isn’t because it would be a tactical error to turn fascist activists into “martyrs”–it might or might not. It’s because even if we “win” by violently suppressing fascist speech and belief, we lose. It is constitutive of liberalism that liberal societies harbor people with illiberal politics. To say doing so threatens liberalism is to make a category error as blatant as saying that allowing free and open immigration threatens liberalism because immigrants might have bad ideas.

Much has been made, sadly, of the idea that the liberal value of tolerance cannot be extended to those who would undermine the liberal order. This is a dangerous mistake. Jason Kuznicki discussed the so-called “paradox of tolerance” in a piece for Libertarianism.org and did a follow-up interview on the Cato Daily Podcast. If anything, I’d say he understates the case. And if he’s wrong that people have been misreading and misapplying Popper, if Popper really does think maintaining a liberal society ought to involve suppressing intolerance, so much the worse for Popper.

It is of course possible for fascist words to cross the line from protected expression to crime.

I have to concede that although I’m suspicious of incitement as a concept, there is probably nothing obviously or necessarily alien to liberalism about forcibly responding to those engaged in incitement, or to those involved in a criminal conspiracy. But these lines should be drawn narrowly and as clearly as possible, not only in outlining what liberals want for American constitutional jurisprudence, but also in considering private action against fascists. This is one of the few areas where American constitutional jurisprudence, is, relatively speaking, pretty libertarian. It would be a shame to mess that up. That way lies “pre-crime” and “preventative detention.” More saliently to the present discussion, I can only repeat that liberals have every reason to hold private actors to similarly stringent restraints on the use of force. Generally, liberal anarchists tend to hold states and private actors to the same moral standards.

Liberals should draw a hard line on freedom of conscience and expression because we must reclaim the mantle of free speech’s most ardent defenders from the alt-right charlatans who cloak themselves in it only as a matter of convenience. It was once widely understood that when the Nazis attempted to march through Skokie, it was the ACLU that was the champion of human freedom, not the fascists. Today, that line has become muddied. We cannot rely on socialists to correct this mistake–they have no wish to correct it. The ACLU itself, once the most reliable hard-line defender of the freedoms of speech and of conscience, has recently shown signs of abandoning its own principled advocacy on speech in favor of Blue Team cheerleading. If the ACLU decides to become MoveOn.org, liberals should be certain that we’re prepared to pick up the fight.

Part of the problem here is that to defend, for example, racist speech, as a practical matter you have to have solid anti-racist bona fides–otherwise your defense of the speech comes across as an endorsement of its content. Libertarians have a lot of work to do on this front, brought on by decades of pandering to right-populists. As part of that, it’s long past time for the total abandonment of Fusionism.

We must always remember that freedom of speech and conscience are foundational liberal principles. If we don’t hold a hard line on them, no one else will.

Some Guiding Principles

The foregoing demonstrates, I think decisively, that libertarians must develop their own anti-fascist praxis, separate and distinct from the strategies adopted by socialists. I have not, however, said much about what a libertarian anti-fascist praxis ought to entail. Part of the reason for that is that it’s a separate topic, and one for which the way must be cleared. Another part is that I frankly don’t know precisely what to do. I’ll be reading my fellow contributors’ pieces with an eye toward getting a clearer sense of the matter.

I can, however, offer some guiding principles. First and foremost, a libertarian anti-fascist praxis must be thoroughgoingly liberal.

I’d also like it to involve, for lack of a better word, harm reduction. The more sanguinary elements of the left have recently embraced the slogan “Make Racists Afraid Again.” The path for liberals, I think, has to be the flipside of this: “Make Non-Whites Feel Safe, If Not Again, Then Perhaps for the First Time.” It’s not as catchy, I know. I’m still workshopping it. The idea is that instilling fear into racists is only useful or desirable to the extent that doing so protects vulnerable people. As such, we should put the protection of the vulnerable at the center of our thinking about anti-fascism, as opposed to the terrorizing and castigation of our political enemies, however much they may deserve it. Can we, for example, insulate immigrants from the threat posed by law enforcement? Can we confront racist or homophobic (etc.) street harassment in a way that’s primarily about ensuring the safety of its targets, rather than sating our own bloodlust? We don’t want to make resisting fascism primarily about what makes us feel good, rather than what most helps fascism’s victims.

Finally, because the threat of “vigilante” fascism is dwarfed by the threat of fascism with political power, libertarian antifascism should incorporate knowledge about the nature and causes of political power and how to disrupt it. Specifically: political power is the ability to compel obedience, and political power is disrupted when that obedience is jeopardized. This is what is so laughable about the idea of a “Resistance” driven by Hillary Clinton and the DNC: a total failure to understand that the core problem is not the present distribution of political power, a mindset that recoils from the possibility that ultimately our very survival may depend on dismantling the apparatus of power before it crushes us–or, more accurately, before we, “preserving the integrity of the democratic process,” “respecting the law of the land,” “just following orders,” crush ourselves.

Anarchy and Democracy
Fighting Fascism
Markets Not Capitalism
The Anatomy of Escape
Organization Theory