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Almost exactly one year ago, I watched as small groups of masked youngsters, clad in black from head to toe, waded into the crowd during President Trump’s inauguration in Washington, D.C., where I live. They torched a limousine, shattered the windows of a bank, and hit a journalist with a flagpole, all while howling about fascism.
Trump’s ascent and the rise of the alt-right had motivated antifa, an anti-fascism movement that has been around since the 1920s, to take to the streets. Some members of antifa argue that it is “OK to punch a Nazi,” and that if you want a protest movement without violence you may as well stay home. They are hardly the first to embrace the use of force as a legitimate political tool, and I understand their urges. But in most circumstances, including Trump’s United States, their claims fail on both moral and prudential grounds—and I am writing from the perspective of someone who has been there.
• • •
In 1946 I had good reasons to wish to punch the British. I was a Jewish child who escaped Nazi Germany and was living in Palestine, and though it had only been one year since the British had helped defeat the Nazis and end World War II, they were now, as I saw it, on the wrong side of history.
Protecting democracy from tyranny by all means necessary is the moral high ground. But this is not what we are witnessing today.
In Palestine, which was ruled by the British at that time, I lived 800 yards from a beach on which rickety boats loaded with Jewish refugees landed with some frequency. In part to appease the Arab population, the British tried to restrict Jewish immigration, going so far as to build a radar station to help them catch the “illegals” next to my home.
At the time, we were still learning the full measure of the Holocaust. I lost most of my extended family. And it was in this context that the British, when they caught Jews who had escaped the hell Europe had become, locked them up in detention camps in Cyprus or shipped them back to Europe. In one notorious case, the British shipped Jews who escaped France in July 1945 to Germany, an incident that was covered in a bestselling book and movie named after the boat, the SS Exodus 1947. Survivors (or “Displaced Persons,” as the British referred to them) were cruelly grouped by country of origin: German Jews were sent to live with dislocated Nazis, and Polish Jews with Polish Nazi collaborators. Watching this, I had every reason to be furious with the British, and I was hardly alone.
In September 1946 I dropped out of high school and joined those who were fighting to drive the British out of Palestine and to form a homeland for Jews. I had two choices in this effort, however; I could either join the Palmach, a group that focused primarily on destroying strategic targets (such as radar stations and bridges), or I could join the Irgun, which believed that killing the British was necessary to make the cost of holding on to Palestine too high. In 1946 Irgun fighters famously blew up the British administrative headquarters housed in the King David Hotel, killing ninety-one people.
To be fair, the Palmach crossed the line too, at times even collaborating with the Irgun, but I chose the Palmach. Frankly, as a sixteen-year-old high school dropout, I was hardly a moral maven. But two things were clear to me: I was brought up to believe that every human being counts—that he who saved one soul is as if he saved a whole world—and I believed that as mistaken as the British were, they too bled, had parents and children, and experienced love and grief. It was wrong to kill them—even in order to open the gates to Jewish refugees. As I later learned to say, the ends (however noble) do not justify all means.
On top of this ethical viewpoint, there was also a practical angle. I understood that the small Jewish community (some 600,000, including children and elderly) could not drive out a British army of 100,000 well-armed soldiers. But we might be able to persuade the British public that the British occupation (as we called it) was unjustified, point to the plight of the Holocaust survivors, and get British voters to compel their government to withdraw its troops. Thus, when we planted bombs in radar stations, we warned the British and gave them time to evacuate. And when we blew up ten of the eleven bridges that linked Palestine to its neighboring countries, we did it in the dead of night when there was no traffic.
I doubt that historians will ever agree whether the Palmach or Irgun contributed more to the British withdrawal. But I had no doubt that there was only one right way to fight; that by gaining liberty without shedding blood (or as little as possible), you end up with clean hands and a clear conscience.
In 1948 the British did leave, and seven Arab armies invaded Israel on the day after it was born. I fought for Israel for two and half years, believing it was a just war because there was no other way to protect civilian life. But I recognized that the war engendered a considerable measure of injustice and, above all, killing. As I wrote in my book, A Diary of a Commando Soldier (1952), my fellow combatants and I felt that the killing on both sides was unnecessary, that there was room in Palestine for both peoples. (The population has since grown eightfold, and I still believe there is room at the inn for everyone.)
By the 1960s I found myself again having to navigate these waters. In 1968, as a professor at Columbia University, I was among a group of faculty that quite literally put ourselves between the leftist students who had occupied several of the campus buildings and those students who wanted to flush them out. A picture in the New York Times captured the moment as members of both groups shoved us while my colleagues and I tried to ease tensions. In the end, our efforts paid off: neither side laid a hand on the other. Violence was averted, and the leftists’ grievances were heard and slowly addressed—to a significant extent.
But by 1969 patience was running thin. The prolonged Vietnam War, civil rights tensions, and police attacks on demonstrators led a growing number of students to support violent groups such as the Weathermen (who carried out a string of bombings in the 1970s) and the Black Panthers (who called on African Americans to arm themselves). I had been expressing opposition to the war in Vietnam for years by this point, and I had become popular among students for being one of the few professors who would join demonstrations, including teach-ins that lasted well into the night.
Although I enjoyed the popularity and believed wholeheartedly in the cause, I was disturbed by the easy talk of violence. During a conference of the New Left—a three-day event dedicated to debating the applications of power—I addressed some 450 student-leaders from all over the country and a total audience of about 1,200 at the University of Pennsylvania. Paul Goodman and I were the keynote speakers—the Philadelphia Inquirer called us “two elder statesmen of the New Left”—but I knew I was about to lose my following. I warned the students that I feared escalation of violence as groups of activists competed with each other over who was more radical. “Everyone is trying to out Vietcong everybody else,” I argued.
“Acts of violence against persons,” I was quoted as saying in the Washington Post, “are in principle no different that the violence of the Vietnam War, except that a fist may be used instead of a bomb.”
Never again would I be called the elder statesman of anything. Or asked to participate in a teach-in. Yet, drawing on what we have learned about activism in the 1960s, I believe my experience and reasoning bears repeating today.
• • •
In the storm of condemnation that greeted President Trump’s comments that “both sides” were to blame for the conflagration in Charlottesville, several issues have been conflated. Trump’s implication of moral equivalence—that there is no substantive difference in the standing of the claims of both sides—is of course a completely untenable position. One side trumpeted support for the darkest elements of racism, and the other marched against white supremacy in all its forms. And there were clearly many more violent demonstrators on the right than on the left, whose ranks often included no more than a few dozen. Indeed, antifa supporters like to point out that since 1992 right-wing terrorists in the United States have killed 219 people while left-wing terrorists have killed only 23.
Antifa’s arguments are appealing and tempting, but they lack appropriate historical context.
I find these numbers both revealing and irrelevant. They support the observation that the left, as a group, is less prone to violence than the right, by a huge margin. But they ignore the question of whether any of those killings were legitimate. What is moral is not a question of statistics. Killings by both sides need to pass the same moral test, and—as far as I can tell—none does. It is true, as some in antifa and their supporters claim, that taking measures to protect protestors from violence is justified. Fair enough. But none of the aforementioned justifies the use of force that antifa itself initiates.
Much of antifa’s argument hinges on the validity of the “Nazi exception,” a seductive carve-out of the nonviolence principle. “The justification [for the use of violence] is that Nazi ideology at its very core is founded on violence and on wielding power by any means,” Mike Isaacson, a cofounder of Smash Racism D.C., explained. “There is the question of whether these people should feel safe organizing as Nazis in public,” he added, “and I don’t think they should.”
Isaacson sees members of the alt-right as those “intent on politically organizing for the sake of creating a state-sponsored genocide.” Fascist organizing, therefore, must be stopped immediately, no matter the method, as Mark Bray, author of Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook (2017), says, “because if you let it grow, that poses a danger to society.” In antifa’s eyes, the United States today is not unlike Germany circa 1936, around when I fled the rising Nazis.
If we faced a regime that did what the Nazis did, all means of resisting it would indeed be justified. Even if we merely witnessed a social movement that used the tactics the Nazis used before they took power in Germany—clubbing Jews, gays, Roma, and democratic socialists and assassinating their leaders—counterviolence would be morally appropriate. Indeed, if such a fascist movement showed serious signs of an imminent ascent to power, imposing its tyranny on a democracy, I would argue that protecting democracy from tyranny by all means necessary is the moral high ground. But this is not what we are witnessing today. Antifa is misreading history; it is hanging on to a fake narrative.
The main assault by right-wing demonstrators is verbal. The mounting of Nazi slogans (“blood and soil”), racist epithets, and white supremacist trash talk make one’s blood boil, but they amount to little more than very offensive speech. When they do lead to violent acts—and in cases where the police cannot or will not stop them—antifa have a place in protecting the demonstrators. But, to reiterate, this is hardly the way they limit the use of their clubs and firebombs.
• • •
In August of 2017, antifa attacked peaceful right-wing protesters in Berkeley. “[T]he hooded group would mob, and in some cases kick and beat, a handful of far-right supporters,” the Los Angeles Times reported. Antifa also maintained a hit-list of known right-wing leaders such as the incendiary blogger Keith Campbell, whose crime was exposing the identities of anti-fascists on the internet. In Berkeley, antifa members ambushed Campbell. In a video of the incident, Campbell is seen lying on the sidewalk, pummeled by fists and poles until Al Letson, an African American journalist with the Center for Investigative Reporting, intervenes, shielding Campbell with his body.
In February, antifa showed up to another protest in Berkeley, this time of the controversial right-wing speaker Milo Yiannopoulos. They stirred up enough chaos that Berkeley’s administration cancelled the event, but the protestors proceeded, even after the cancellation, to take their maelstrom downtown. They set trashcans alight and raged on shop windows and ATMs, causing over $100,000 in property damage. They threw Molotov cocktails and rocks at police and punched several neo-Nazis in the face.
Antifa is playing into the hands of the right. Research shows that violent campaigns are less likely to succeed than nonviolent ones.
I am all too familiar with the antifa argument. “Call us terrorists if you like,” they might say, “but remember that those who are condemned one day as terrorists are celebrated tomorrow as freedom fighters.” This is an appealing and tempting argument, but antifa is taking it out of historical context. The justification of freedom fighters holds for those who sought to drive colonial powers out of their countries—not to terrorize civilians in democratic societies, no matter how flawed their politics are.
Others might riposte, “One must crack eggs to make an omelet.” And indeed, one must crack some heads to make a revolution. But, again, only when one is fighting tyrannies, or even tyrannies in the make. Despite all the tweets, hate speech, attacks on the press, and other wounds Trump is inflicting on U.S. democracy, its institutions are holding. Congress is checking; judges are contending; civil servants are mitigating; and the press is out in full force. A special investigator is even still investigating. Trump has caused damage to U.S. democracy, but street violence will not make democracy whole.
• • •
Setting ethics aside, antifa argues that violence is effective, that the ends do in fact justify the means. According to writer and activist Jesse Benn, liberals who oppose violence by the left, “ignore the history of successful violent insurrection in the U.S., instead favoring the elementary school version of history in which nonviolence is the only means of struggle that’s ever achieved a thing.” Riots are effective in exposing injustice and causing change, Benn observes, citing examples such as the Stonewall Uprising, the Watts Rebellion, and the LA Uprising. “More recently,” he notes, “the Ferguson and Baltimore Uprisings both helped prompt the Justice Department to investigate their corrupt police forces.”
Others in antifa imply that those waiting for a violence-free protest movement are doing so in vain. Michael McBride, Traci Blackmon, Frank Reid, and Barbara Williams Skinner write that the “concern at this moment is with our moderate brothers and sisters who voice support for the cause of racial justice but simultaneously cling to paralyzingly unrealistic standards when it comes to what protest should look like. . . . Those standing on the sidelines of the current racial-justice movement, waiting for a pristine or flawless exercise of righteous protest, will have a long wait.”
While I maintain that the ends never do justify all means, I also refuse to grant antifa the argument that violence by the left is effective in the current political context. On the contrary, antifa is playing into the hands of the right. According to Georgetown history professor Michael Kazin, “[N]on-leftists often see [the left] as a disruptive, lawless force. Violence tends to confirm that view.” Others note that violent protest alienates the general public and depresses support for the protestors’ political views and policies.
Antifa is misreading history; it is hanging on to a fake narrative.
This argument is supported by evidence. Research shows that violent campaigns are less likely to succeed than nonviolent ones, and conversely that nonviolent movements have a higher success rate than violent ones. University of Denver professor Erica Chenoweth collected data on all major nonviolent and violent campaigns for the overthrow of a government or a territorial liberation since 1900. Her data show that from the 1960s to 2006, the success rate of nonviolent movements was consistently higher than that of violent movements, and within recent decades, the success rate of violent movements decreased steeply while the success rate of nonviolent movements greatly increased.
Similarly, by looking at the presidential politics of the 1960s, Princeton political scientist Omar Wasow found that “proximity to black-led nonviolent protests increased white Democratic vote-share whereas proximity to black-led violent protests caused substantively important declines and likely tipped the 1968 election from Hubert Humphrey to Richard Nixon.”
• • •
Some claim now, as they did then, that the violence of those who supported Malcolm X, the Black Panthers, and the Weathermen helped the overall cause because it made Martin Luther King, Jr.’s movement seem moderate. But this perspective ignores the fact that the elites used their violent acts to smear the moderates. Violence even by a small minority within a movement, as sociologist Todd Gitlin observed, “is food for the adversary.” It alters the entire movement’s narrative.
At this stage nothing should be done that could alienate even a small segment of the swing vote.
Indeed, instead of scaring the elites into yielding, violence today has led to increasing the police forces and arming them more heavily. It is a lesson Black Lives Matter heeds and that antifa should note. If antifa succeeds in normalizing violence at public meetings and demonstrations, the left will suffer most. (This article deals with antifa use of forces against persons. I must leave it to another essay to lay out the follies and consequences of its assaults on free speech.)
The only way to curb the huge damage Trump has inflicted is for the Democrats to deny him a Senate majority in the 2018 elections. Short of that, he is very likely to appoint right-wing Supreme Court judges, and he may even get the GOP to allow public policy matters to be decided by a simple majority. Hence at this stage nothing should be done that could alienate even a small segment of the swing vote. And while there is little hope to win over Trump’s base, there are millions who are ambivalent about him—and about the Democratic Party. Many of these voters will be antagonized by violent antics.
Truth to be told, there are quite a few people I would like to punch, some in very high places. But an elementary ethical examination and the realization that I may well do more harm than good to the causes I care about keep my fists where they belong. Instead, I raise my voice. If antifa really wants to fight for vulnerable segments of U.S. society, for justice, and against racist politics and the one-party state, then they should leave the bandanas and clubs at home, hit the streets, and help people register to vote.
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