I was overjoyed when I saw the video footage of the anarchist punching Richard Spencer. Richard Spencer is reputed to have coined the phrase “alt-right”, and behaves in exactly the same way as a neo-Nazi, although he disavows the label. Slate quotes an article from the New York Times that describes what Spencer did at one of his speeches:
He railed against Jews and, with a smile, quoted Nazi propaganda in the original German. America, he said, belonged to white people, whom he called the “children of the sun,” a race of conquerors and creators who had been marginalized but now, in the era of President-elect Donald J. Trump, were “awakening to their own identity.”
As he finished, several audience members had their arms outstretched in a Nazi salute. When Mr. Spencer, or perhaps another person standing near him at the front of the room — it was not clear who — shouted, “Heil the people! Heil victory,” the room shouted it back.
This is just one example out of many of the toxic activities that Spencer has been engaged in.
The Rise of the Far Right
Racism, white nationalism, neo-Nazism and all other kinds of toxic bigotry are on the rise in Western countries. With the inauguration of Donald Trump as the US President, layers of the population who are sympathetic to these ideas are going to feel more confident in becoming vocal and more organised in their toxic and inhuman ideology.
For many on the far-left, the video clip of Spencer being punched was a refreshing moment of catharsis. For many, Spencer was getting exactly what he deserved, and the attack represented a powerful “Fuck You” to the Far Right. The Far Right has been on the rise in Western countries, and so far it seems like little is happening to stop it.
More than this, to the far Left, it seems like the most prominent attempts to deal with the Far Right have been wrong-headed. People like Spencer take pride in their bigotry, and aren’t open to rational discussion about their views. Far-leftists are correct when they diagnose the white supremacist mind as twisted and out of touch with reality. The system of assumptions upon which their ideology rests are grounded on irrational emotions, not solid empirical evidence. Many on the left think that this means that the only way you can fight neo-Nazism and white supremacism is by doing exactly that–physically fighting Nazis.
Propaganda and Gossip
The video clip of Spencer being punched seemed to represent more than just evidence of an act of praxis. It was a moment for celebration. This was a massive propaganda win for leftists. On the video Spencer skulks off after being attacked, clutching his head and looking back to make sure he can avoid any further violence.
But what seems like a massive propaganda win is turning into a topic for gossip among the in-crowd. I agree with some leading comrades that the ideological value of this video clip of Spencer being punched is radically dwindling. The clip is being used to make more and more abstract memes that appeal to only those “in the know” about what to do about neo-Nazis.
Some leading comrades have commented that the endless celebration of one Nazi being punched is not going to make sense to the common American, or the common American worker. I agree with this. Most workers in the US and other Western countries are not organised, and haven’t been educated about what a neo-Nazi is, and why it is a good thing for this lone anarchist to have punched one. There will of course be different levels of class consciousness among the general population, but we shouldn’t make assumptions that this video clip is immediately going to translate our message over to the average person.
Black Blocs and Direct Action
I would like to broaden this discussion by talking about the significant anarchist presence at the Trump inauguration. Many will already know that many anarchists attended the Trump inauguration in an organised “Black Bloc”. Some anarchists engaged in “insurrectionist” tactics. This means setting out to challenge authority through violent means. Many anarchists at the Trump inauguration took insurrectionism to mean being violent to neo-Nazis and damaging private property. Insurrectionist tactics are one example of what Communists call “direct action”. Direct action is when one engages in direct public protest instead of (usually clandestine) negotiation in order to achieve strategic aims.
The punching of Spencer is an example of an anarchist engaging in insurrectionist direct action. Like the action of punching Spencer, many on the far Left celebrated the violent direct action of the Black Blocs. To me at least, this rioting represented something powerfully symbolic. Against the reverence of the (small) attendees of the inauguration, and the (frustrating) platitudes of liberal commentators and protesters, the Black Bloc advertised the message of the far Left: “We won’t put up with this!”
But like the punching of Spencer, the insurrectionist direct action by the anarchists probably isn’t going to translate into sympathy for our cause among the unorganised working class. In fact I (not without a sense of shame) agree with the trot Paul D’Amato in his 2012 online article Diversity of tactics or unity in action?: by engaging in mere gossiping and in-crowd discussion about the direct action of the anarchists at the inauguration we risk being elitist and sectarian in our approach to building our movement.
The Difference Between Strategy and Tactics
Insurrectionist direct action is a very real and live device in the Communist toolkit for achieving strategic goals for our movement. But it is a mere tactic, and not a strategic goal in and of itself. If we continue to just gossip and celebrate our use of tactics, we lose sight of the bigger picture of the Communist cause. If the celebration of punching Nazis, smashing windows, and getting into fights with the police continues for much longer, we will not be doing our jobs properly.
Insurrectionist direct action is “sexy”. Everyone loves a good story about a confrontation they had with the cops. But it is not enough to build our movement. In fact the direct opposite is going to help us with the revolution. Slow, painstaking and patient organising in our workplaces and communities is going to help us grow in numbers and strength. This is real power. Brute physical strength is not enough to help us grow and win. It is a necessary component of helping us win, but it is not sufficient. Only organising is sufficient, as well as necessary.
Organising is always necessary as well as sufficient tactic for building our strategic goals because it always builds power. Insurrectionism only works sometimes, and in isolated cases. Further, insurrectionism is a corollary of organising. A large layer of people need to have been previously organised in order to make insurrectionism intelligible and understandable.
We can go even further. Insurrectionism is not a good tactic in and of itself. Its goodness as a tactic is derivative. It is good because of what it brings about. It is good because of its consequences. It is therefore not an intrinsic good. Think about the justifications Communists give for insurrectionist direct action: It helps expose systems of authority. It physically resists and dispels bigotry. It displays, in powerful symbolic form, the message and strength of the Left to others.
All of these justifications point outside the internal organisation of the working class. This demonstrates that insurrectionism is not an intrinsic good. It is, however, still a good of some kind. Which means insurrectionism could and must be practiced when it is necessary.
The question all Communists should be asking themselves is: when should I be engaging in direct action? What kind of direct action is sufficient for our overall strategy?
I personally think that Trump’s inauguration was a better time for insurrectionism, than others. But we need to be mindful that we aren’t raising mere tactics to the level of strategy.