Nazi-Punching Praxis: Against the Liberal Theology of Reason & Non-Violence

[George Ciccariello-Maher interviewed by Daniel Denvir – Part 2 – (continued from Part 1 here) – transcribed from The Dig, Episode 10 –  (slightly edited for clarity). The image above is of Danuta Danielsson hitting a neo-Nazi with her handbag in 1985.]


“We Need Swords to Move Forward”


DD: You successfully mounted the defense of your tweet or tweets, first obviously by noting the ‘Alt-Right’ people that came after you were wrong, but also on the basis of academic freedom. What do you believe that academic freedom entails, especially now that we’re living under Trump?


GCM: Academic freedom is a very fraught category. I think academic freedom is an essential shield that we need that we cannot relinquish, because it allows us, for example, to speak freely despite the political pressures that are already beginning to come down on us as academics. However, I think it is very important to distinguish between academic freedom and free speech. To even refer to my tweets in terms of academic freedom is a little worrying, because it implies the idea that universities should be discussing the speech of faculty that happens outside of the academic sphere.


Academic freedom in the classroom means allowing students and faculty to engage in thoughtful conversations. This has also become a route of attack for the far-right that wants to infiltrate the classroom, record conversations, and even use anti-discrimination law against faculty by claiming that students don’t feel safe, by claiming that they feel discriminated against. In other words, by using laws that are meant to protect people of color and women against these hurt white feelings in the classroom. This is dangerous as well and this is where the whole question gets very complicated.


You’ve got people trying to provoke with these campus tours. You know, Milo, Richard Spencer, trying to be invited to campuses to provoke controversy over whether or not they’re allowed to speak and trying to frame that as a free speech question. Here I think the left needs to very careful. There are some arguments out there which I would understand to be free speech absolutist, that say free speech is a primary freedom and the left needs to first and foremost defend free speech. But the left has to first and foremost defend a program of progressive and radical transformation and change. Free speech and academic freedom are shields, and we need swords to move forward.


We need to be able to make arguments about how Richard Spencer is not welcome to speak on university campuses. He is welcome, of course, under the law, without state intervention to spout his garbage on the street corner. But he’s not required to be granted the weight or recognition of a university platform. And people who will be inevitably victimized by the violence he espouses have every right to go out and make that impossible, to prevent him from speaking in whatever way necessary.


DD: And where should that line be drawn? Is it drawn around people like Richard Spencer who are overt white supremacists or is it drawn also around people like Charles Murray (the author of the racist book The Bell Curve) who have full academic pedigrees? I agree with what you’re saying but I also wonder about how one makes an institution the arbiter of allowed speech without slipping into a place where that power is used against someone like you.


GCM: I think it’s a very difficult question but it’s one that we need to confront. If you’re talking about The Bell Curve, you’re talking about people with academic pedigrees making absurd pseudo-scientific arguments as well. You have cases of Nobel Prize-winning scientists making white supremacist statements that have no basis in even the kind of rationality at which they have proven themselves very expert. So I think these things are difficult.


I think recognizing the right to protest these statements and these platforms is always justifiable. In this whole situation with myself, the voices that no one has really asked about are the voices of black and brown students — whether or not they feel safe on campuses where this kind of speech is legitimized and justified. It’s important to recognize their ability to play a role in these conversations and say, “Well no, this is actually not something that I’m required to respect.” If you’ve got a university inviting someone to speak—again this is not strictly a free speech issue—this is a question of whether or not universities should be legitimizing that speech, justifying it, giving a tacit stamp of approval or at least of legitimacy. And yet we’re talking about views that are reprehensible and illegitimate.


We’re also in a moment where it’s difficult because the reprehensible and the illegitimate have taken over institutions of political power and have done so through the institutions of the electoral college. So people are struggling, I think justifiably, with trying to figure out how it is possible to deem something illegitimate but also recognize that it has institutional legitimacy. The fact that Richard Spencer may have a right to speak, versus the fact that we actually need to build an anti-fascist culture that does not recognize the content of that speech as legitimate at all.


For a Radically Democratic Approach to Free Speech


DD: Your rights or other academics’ rights to express themselves—to what degree are those rights that you have as academics and to what degree are they protected as workers’ free speech rights more generally vis-a-vis their bosses? Corey Robin, in a post defending you, wrote, “Over the years it has become a pillar of our organizing that no one should be punished by his or her employer for political speech off the job. This is a cornerstone of academic freedom but many of us believe it should be extended to all forms of employment. People still tend to view employment in the workplace as part of civil society, a sphere of personal association and sociability. It’s not. It’s a regime of governance, and in the United States, it’s been one of the most potent means by which freedom of speech, including political speech, has been abridged.” To what degree do you see this as a workers’ rights issue and to what degree do you see it as peculiar to academia?


GCM: It’s certainly somewhere in between the two. Academia is kind of a strange world where we can speak more freely than some, we enjoy certain protections. It’s also a space in which we have access to students and we have classroom conversations. I think that [Robin’s] point is well taken and it’s become a fraught point in the present as well because you’ve got people, for example, saying incredibly racist things on social media and then you have them losing their jobs over those statements. On the one hand, there’s a principle of defending speech in the workplace. On the other, there are questions of whether or not co-workers should tolerate someone in their workplace who is expressing contempt for them. These become very difficult questions.


One essential thing is that it is important not to empower the bosses to deal with these questions through their own authority and their own prerogative. That’s a really important point. How is it that we can express our critiques of some of this workplace speech without demanding that someone be fired or that the bosses be empowered to judge what is acceptable and what is unacceptable speech? But I don’t think these are easy questions.


These questions are getting more complicated when it comes to academia because you have some people who enjoy protections, but not everyone. The increasing adjunctification of academic labor means more and more people in the classroom teaching students do not enjoy any kind of formal protection, yet they have academic freedom as well. It’s not simply that tenure is the only guarantee of academic freedom. The policies, for example, of the American Association of University Professors are pretty explicit in the fact that, no matter who you are, you enjoy this kind of freedom when it comes to on-campus or in-the-classroom protections.


We also have to pay very close attention to the fact that the contingent labor crisis that is emerging in academia means that these struggles are going to be more difficult. I’m lucky enough to have tenure but many, in fact the majority, of faculty in some institutions do not. As these fights emerge, we need to pay particular attention to contingent faculty, to temporary faculty, and to those faculty who while enjoying academic freedom rights may not always see those rights upheld in practice.


DD: I agree that these are very difficult questions. I think that free speech on the left is sometimes misrepresented as a liberal value while in fact I think it’s a radically democratic one in the sense that when one makes the state or a boss the arbiter of permitted speech, it feeds the boss’s power of control and exploitation over the worker and the state’s most authoritarian and carceral powers to surveil police and punish. I think you’re pointing to an interesting tension of how to fight speech that is truly dangerous, like that articulated by our president and Richard Spencer, without giving the state’s worst, most dangerous features more of what they want.


GCM: Absolutely. I think you hit it right on the head when you said there’s a radically democratic element here. There’s nothing more radically democratic than thousands of students showing up and making it utterly impossible for Richard Spencer, Milo, or these other far-right speakers to enjoy the platform that a university provides. I think that is well and fully within their own expressive rights. We need to think harder about how it is that we build a left platform in which free speech is taken seriously, but which doesn’t become in many ways a hindrance. You can’t have a left that says we should allow Milo to get up and speak and harass and encourage violence be brought down on a trans student at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and the left stands by silently. This is not in any way a viable left politics. So we need to understand how speech can fit in with our substantive concerns and how, for example, to demand the ability to express radically egalitarian politics, and to demand the ability to have an equal platform for reactionary genocidal white supremacist arguments, are not the same thing.


Nazi-Punching Praxis vs. The Liberal Theology of Reason


DD: Obviously this brings us to the question of Nazi punching. I haven’t seen many on the left actually having a problem with Richard Spencer being punched – quite to the contrary – but it does bring up the question of the role of violence in politics and of free speech more generally. Obviously this is also a question that requires attention to context. First, tell me what you think the political function was of Richard Spencer getting punched in the face and that going viral.


GCM: This is really important and the question is well posed. I think what is being missed is the fact that this is a praxis, that this is not simply a performance—it’s not an expression of frustration. It’s an actual political practice that is constructive and creative. The effects that punching Nazis creates include, first, as Richard Spencer through his own absurd inability to think strategically has admitted, it has made his life a living hell already. He admitted that it’s making it very difficult for them to organize. He’s admitted, in other words, everything that many of us have said about how Nazis need to be treated and about this famous apocryphal quote from Hitler that says, “If someone had recognized early on and crushed our movement with the utmost brutality of violence, then we would never have been able to grow.”


This is where you find not only historical Nazism and fascism growing in the context of what Carl Schmitt and Gramsci – right and left – recognized as the inability of liberalism to grapple with real tensions and contradictions. Liberalism’s frozen inability to face these problems head on and to offer real solutions is a breeding ground for these kind of movements. So the political effect is to first of all shut down Nazis and make it perfectly clear to them that this is not an acceptable way to be or an acceptable thing to be. This is where I actually like the reframing that some people have offered which is very convincing which says, “The question is not whether or not it’s ok to punch a Nazi; the question is whether or not it’s ok to be a Nazi.” If you’ve made that decision, then maybe consequences follow…


There is this sort of liberal theology that reason defeats unreason.


DD: The marketplace of ideas.


GCM: Right. If you understand history, you understand that this is very rarely the case. The Trump election is a very good example of this, in which unreason is powerful. Unreason does not respond to reason. You cannot convince a white supremacist that they are wrong. You have to defeat them by material means, and this is one of those means. What is so effective and interesting and useful about Richard Spencer being punched at this moment in time is that – and this gets back to what happened to me as well – it’s a moment in which people are, in the aftermath of the election, really grappling with questions of legitimacy and questions of struggle and questions of violence. You’ve got a lot of just liberals today saying, “Well, he is a Nazi after all. I believe in certain principles that I’ve been taught, and yet Captain America punched Nazis. And yet my grandfather killed Nazis. Not because it was a radical thing to do, but because it was what you do.”


So I think this is a very productive conversation that is being had in the mainstream media. If a year or two ago you had said we would be talking about the legitimacy of punching Nazis on the front page of the New York Times or in Teen Vogue or that the National Park Service would be tweeting the things that it’s tweeting, then I would have told you that you were crazy. We’re living in incredibly interesting times and I think these questions of legitimacy that are being raised in this moment are really productive because it’s a question of taking these mobilized, frustrated liberals, and splitting them. Some of them will be able to be mobilized towards more radical ends and some of them will flow back into some version of Democratic party hegemony in the future.


Movement-Building beyond the Fetishization of Violence and Non-violence


DD: Ethical or moral questions aside, one question I have is whether emphasizing violence – not engaging in it – but putting an emphasis on it, can lead to a fetishization of optics over movement building and strategy, the latter two being things that the left has a lot of work to do on. Is there sort of a romanticization of street violence and maybe a sort of vanguardist attitude that can allow the left to get ahead of where it is in terms of its actual capacity?


GCM: Absolutely. It is a question of whether or not you’re getting ahead of things. There are people who have been engaging in Nazi-punching for many, many years, and in some of those other moments, with different historical contexts, it may have been a close to irrelevant political tactic. What we’re seeing today is that it’s at the center of mainstream anxieties and debates. We should always be wary of the way that certain tactics get fetishized. But we also have to be aware that the tactic of nonviolence is probably the most fetishized tactic in US liberalism, because it enters into movement-building as a brake on struggles.


For example, as just one example, protestors in the Inauguration are facing more than ten years on felony riot charges and yet people are still talking about property violence as being unnecessarily provocative or aggressive or a bad tactic. So I think if anything, there is a lot of fetishization going on all around. The first things that need to be de-fetishized, the first things that need to be critically grappled with, are certain assumptions: what I call theological assumptions about non-violence. The assumption that history moves forward, again through reason, through people getting together and conversing and ‘good ideas defeat bad’ and ‘we’re all non-violent and then suddenly the world gets better’ – when that’s never how these things have happened.


We don’t have civil rights because of non-violent struggle convincing white people that they were wrong. We have civil rights – a very limited accomplishment, we should be clear – because non-violent movements that were militant, that were also engaged in self-defense, existed alongside openly combative and violent movements, and because people were rioting in the streets and rebelling and demanding justice and appealing to the ethical foundations of the country as well as pushing beyond those foundations to demand equality. Just as we’re having these conversations today in part, not because people suddenly realized that mass incarceration and police murder were wrong, but because people took to the streets of Ferguson and Baltimore aggressively, violently, burning things down, in an attempt to press forward this conversation.


Moving Liberals to the Left: Elections or Struggles in the Streets?


DD: I want to end by turning to the question of movement building more broadly. I’ve been involved in the left since probably the mid to late 1990’s as a teenager and this is the first time where I’ve seen the common sense understanding of people active on the left being that our goal is to win majority support and govern. For all of my time on the left, it’s been a presumption that that would be nice to do at some point, but really the common sense understanding being that our role is to play defense and to protest. What do you see as the path forward for the left under Trump in terms of both fighting the far right, but also dealing with the neoliberal establishment that allowed them to win? A related question is what do you see as the relationship in the movements that are going on between the left and liberals who in the past have been more tied to that neoliberal establishment?


GCM: I think we live in a very particular historical moment. The question of power has been posed in a way that it hasn’t been posed in the past. There was no accident that when we were first engaging in political organizing it was on a very small scale, it was on the negative side—in other words, the pushing back against, the protesting against rather than the creating and building or taking power, seizing power. The world has been transformed. We’re talking about Latin America, we’re talking about the emergence of things like Occupy, but also the Indignados in Spain, Tahrir Square and the ways in which people are taking to the streets to try and seize power and push forward transformation. This raises dramatically different questions.


And here of course, Bernie Sanders emerges not as a protagonist of this, but as an echo of movements in the streets. The fact that we could be living under the presidency of an avowed socialist is unprecedented and it is the long-term impact of these kind of struggles in the streets and pushing forward of a different kind of politics. The question is really how to push that forward: how to broaden our scope without selling it out to the political establishment, to the Democratic Party. There is very little I think that can be said in terms of how that struggle should happen aside from what I think people are very importantly pushing and driving home today. Namely, the fact that we need to be open to people radicalizing themselves. Be open to liberals moving to the left.


This is nothing new. Occupy was a huge moment in which many, many liberals or people who would otherwise have been liberal became radicalized. It’s messy and it’s complicated but it’s something that we need to engage with. The future question is going to be how it is that that is done. I am firmly of the belief that it is not to be done through elections, although elections may result from it. I am pretty firmly of the belief that it emerges in the street by people organizing in the streets. I also though, believe that it doesn’t necessarily emerge from people slowly, gradually being convinced that the old ways were wrong and the new ways are better. I think it comes spectacularly as well. I think people observing from afar what happened in Ferguson and Baltimore has a dramatic effect on how they view the world, whether they think we already live in a state of equality and should stop whining or that we need to continue fighting and that there are still people suffering very much under the consequences of structural white supremacy and inequality. So I think we need to push forward in the streets.


We need to be very wary of cooptation by the Democratic party. I would love to see the Democratic party disintegrate into a thousand pieces and I think the Republican party itself is on the verge of some kind of similar collapse. We may see a dramatic reorientation of the two party system in the coming years. That’s something that’s not only needed to be seen as an opportunity, but actually as a threat. If the Democrats put forward a populist candidate – which they will probably attempt to do – they will be doing so in an attempt to save a really rotten edifice. I think we need to think hard and debate hard and struggle hard over what it would mean to engage in elections at the same time that we are necessarily building movements in the streets.


What we need to be doing now is building a defense against Trumpism, which means fighting the radical right, fighting the Richard Spencers, fighting the Milos, but also fighting the government policy that Trump is going to be pushing through—building direct community self-defense against deportation, for example. Making it as impossible as we can for Trump to deport the three million migrants that he claims he wants to deport and building community self-defense against the police. It’s no coincidence that the border patrol union and the police union, the Fraternal Order of Police, endorsed Trump. These are two sides of the same white supremacist coin and the police are going to be increasingly aggressive in the years that come. We’re going to see heightened struggles over police brutality and police violence, in particular against black and brown people. We need to be on guard and building alternative institutions in communities capable of resisting these.

George Ciccariello-Maher is a member of the Abolition Collective, and the author of We Created Chávez (Duke, 2013), Building the Commune (Jacobin-Verso, 2016), and Decolonizing Dialectics (Duke, 2017). He is an associate professor of politics and global studies at Drexel University and visiting researcher at the Instituto de Investigaciones Sociales at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM).


3 thoughts on “Nazi-Punching Praxis: Against the Liberal Theology of Reason & Non-Violence

  1. In order to defeat the Nazis in their early stage you needed to have a militia which was well organized and capable of choosing battles and capable of controlling and un-masking agent provocateurs.

  2. >> We need to think harder about how it is that we build a left platform in which free speech is taken seriously, but which doesn’t become in many ways a hindrance.<<

    Yes, we do.
    Part of that discussion needs to include a recognition of the harms caused by hate speech, bc as things stand now, too many liberals don't know (or care) about the psychological harm brought to PoC, disabled people, queer folks, and religious/ethnic minorities by hate speech. All we hear is "Must allow Coulter to speak. To oppose that is violating her rights."

    What about *our* right to safety, security, and stable mental health–all of which are jeopardized when these far-right bigots speak?

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