Ought We to Punch Nazis?
The recent glut of books concerned with the rise of fascism throughout the world is largely diagnostic. They name the problem, outline historical precedent, and issue grave warnings about the future if nothing is done. But what is to be done? That question, the question of action, is suspiciously missing from many of the tomes that assess the reactionary trend in contemporary politics. The dearth of practical responses to fascism makes The Philosophy of Antifascism: Punching Nazis and Fighting White Supremacy (2020) by Devin Zane Shaw a surprising addition to this growing body of work that stands out in its bold arguments in favor of punching Nazis. It has proven to be a controversial claim, as evidence by the liberal, not to mention conservative, response to the assault on white supremacist and ethno-nationalist figurehead Richard Spencer, the video of which went viral in January 2017.
Aside from Mark Bray’s Antifa: The Antifascist Handbook (2017), most books dissecting insurgent fascist politics shy away from providing concrete tactical advice to those who seek to combat fascists, dare we say, “by any means necessary.” Even Bray’s book, expertly researched and largely even and academic in its tone, is really only providing advice by proxy. It is not so much about the rise of fascism as it is about the history of resistance to fascism, from the early days of the German Antifaschistische Aktion to today’s decentralized and hotly debated “antifa,” which President Trump declared a terrorist organization in June 2020, though no such official organization exists. It is clear that Bray approves of antifascist action, but the book is one of intellectual and political history wherein an argument in favor of particular strategies has to be brought out through close reading—the text is a “handbook” in name only.
Shaw’s book is more strident in its recommendations and makes an explicit philosophical argument in favor of meeting fascists with violent resistance, among a wide array of other organizational tactics focused on community building. It is, then, no surprise that the book is published under the auspices of a new series from Rowman and Littlefield International called Living Existentialism. The French existentialists Sartre, Beauvoir, and Fanon are notorious for their defense of anti-colonial violence among the revolutionaries of North Africa, particularly in Algeria, and in Vietnam. It should come as no surprise that Shaw ties fascism to colonialism, seeing a convergence of the two political strains while allowing for their logical distinction. It should also come as no surprise that Shaw’s book has been received with some controversy from across the political spectrum, including the receipt of some threats against his person. Sartre’s apartment was targeted and bombed twice in 1961 and 1962 by the Organisation Armée Secrète, a right-wing paramilitary organization who fought to keep Algeria under French rule. The rise of right-wing paramilitary organizations in North America is yet another symptom often observed by the diagnosticians of fascism and Shaw recognized their insurrectionary nature.
[Read “Who Cares About Democracy?”]
The Three-Way Fight Between Fascism, Liberalism, and Antifascism
Recognition of the insurrectionary qualities of fascism is evident in the way it and the far-right are defined in the opening chapter and placed in relation to both liberalism and antifascism in a “three-way fight”. The definition of fascism is adapted from Matthew Lyons, outlined in the book Insurgent Supremacists: The U.S. Far Right’s Challenge to State and Empire (2018). Lyons defines fascism as:
“A revolutionary form of right-wing populism, inspired by a totalitarian vision of collective rebirth, that challenges capitalist political and cultural power while promoting economic and social hierarchy.”
Shaw makes an important amendment to this definition, following the arguments of J. Sakai, that fascism is anti-bourgeois but not anti-capitalist. Thus, because fascists desire the continuation of the hierarchical order imposed by capitalism, and specifically by capitalism pursuing a program of settler-colonialism, fascism cannot be revolutionary. Fascism can be insurrectionary, which can lead fascists to form uneasy alliances with factions of the left that challenge the existing state’s monopoly on legitimate violence. There is, then, a line of adjacency between the far-right and fascism on the one hand, and antifascists on the other insofar as both have potentially insurrectionary politics that challenge the de jure monopoly on political violence enjoyed by the state and deployed in service to the status quo.
However, truly revolutionary politics are anti-capitalist, according to Shaw’s understanding. If that is the case, then fascists cannot be revolutionary, again, because though they may be anti-bourgeois, they are not anti-capitalist. This means that liberals will often align with fascists to combat left-wing political movements that are truly revolutionary, in virtue of which they are a threat to the existing capitalist order. Liberalism shares a line of adjacency with the fascist far-right thanks to their mutual defense of settler-state hegemony resting upon the capitalist order.
And yet, these two groups appear in tension to one another thanks to liberalism’s professed egalitarianism, which is a feature it shares with left-wing antifascists. This emphasis on egalitarianism will lead Shaw into a fruitful engagement with the theorist Jacques Ranciere. The line of adjacency established by this mutual commitment to egalitarianism between antifascists on the left and liberalism, which is rejected wholesale by fascists and the far-right, is extremely important for Shaw’s overall arguments.
This is the three-way fight as Shaw outlines it, supported by arguments drawn and adapted from J. Sakai, J. Moufawad-Paul, and Lyons. In terms of the analysis here, we can see a strong family relationship between the variety of antifascism being advocated by Shaw and Maoism, a form of Marxist-Leninist political theory championed by both Sakai and Moufawad-Paul, original to the Chinese revolutionary Mao Zedong. However, Shaw is not himself a Maoist and also draws heavily on anarchist political theory in the chapters on practice, which is absolutely unavoidable for any serious text on the philosophy of antifascism. These disparate affinities are significant to note both for the powerful analyses they provide when brought in conjunction with one another and for the difficulties they raise for Shaw’s synthesis of fundamentally Marxist political theory and existentialism—problems treated at length in Sartre’s Search for a Method (1957) and the two volumes of Critique of Dialectical Reason (1960, 1985). It also shows that Shaw, like the existentialists, is much more deeply rooted in leftist politics than other books on the threat of contemporary fascism.
For instance, Shaw himself has responded to the essentially liberal analysis provided by Jason Stanley, author of the wildly popular book How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them (2018). Shaw reads Stanley as offering a different, if not entirely incommensurate, definition of “fascism” as being an “ultranationalism of some variety (ethnic, religious, cultural), with the nation represented in the person of an authoritarian leader who speaks on its behalf.” The real difference can be understood as one of emphasis, but it is an emphasis that makes all the difference. In Stanley’s definition, the authoritarian leader is emphasized, especially as that leader is meant to embody and exemplify the “will of the people” as the incarnation of the state itself. Shaw’s definition does not focus on the role of the authoritarian leader. Rather, it draws critical attention to the populist element within fascist movements that allows for a relatively autonomous mass base capable of engaging in insurgent activities and from which the ranks of the official fascist political machine (should one be allowed to emerge) can be filled.
Debating How Fascism Works
Stanley has pushed back against this reading of his work, arguing the truncated definition as interpreted by Shaw is only an in-road to the concept and that his actual definition spans his book’s ten chapters. That is a difficult position to inhabit, as it seems to side-step demands for a manageable definition that can be easily articulated. Taking Stanley at his word, the definition of “fascism” works out to be something like: a political ideology committed to a purely mythic past that has been tragically destroyed; that uses the propaganda of virtuous ideals to unite people behind otherwise questionable ends; advances anti-intellectualism to undermine public discourse, attacking and devaluing education, expertise, and language; brings reality itself into question among the populace, the results being that reasoned debate is replaced by fear and anger; engenders anti-egalitarianism by insistence on naturally-imposed hierarchies of power and dominance; wherein a dominant group is recast as the victims of external, existential threats; in which law and order rhetoric divides citizen into the inherently lawful chosen nation and the inherently criminal outsiders who are an existential threat to the nation; promoting a politics of sexual anxiety particularly over the alleged erosion of proper masculinity; in which large cosmopolitan cities are a threat because they are hotbeds of national corruption, impurities, racial mixing, immigrants, etc., making rural populations into the true representative of the state; and, such a state will reserve support for members of the nation—others are excluded on grounds of their laziness, inherent criminality, etc.
Certainly, Shaw’s working definition has the advantage of being succinct in a way that Stanley’s more sprawling categorization does not.
It may or may not be a weakness, depending on how readers respond to nuance and the need for further reading, but Stanley’s definition is ultimately dependent on the work he did in a previous book, How Propaganda Works (2015). That text, Stanley claims, is necessary to understanding his position on the relationship between liberalism and capitalism, where even liberalism itself, if it is to actualize its egalitarian potential, is inconsistent with capitalism. Here is where the real disagreement between him and Shaw lies. For Shaw, there is no reformation of liberalism outside of its commitment to capitalism and this is why liberals consistently turn against leftists and give cover to fascists.
Aside from this fundamental disagreement, neither of these definitions are entirely wrong, per se. It does seem that Stanley is perhaps offering a more functionalist definition that strongly emphasizes propaganda. If his definition were reduced to a greater level of generality, several of his elements could be folded into one overarching point about propaganda. The function of propaganda to recast reality as a set of immutable hierarchies that structures the in-group/out-group dynamics of dominance within fascism could be synthesized with Shaw’s point about the mobilization of the masses—a specific point that is explicitly missing from Stanley’s account but is implicit in his several arguments about the role of propaganda in fascist ideology. It is worth making the mass-mobilization element explicit, however, because that feature is particularly important for understanding the current political moment and its dangers. Shaw’s engagement with leftist politics serves him on the level of categorical succinctness that does not necessarily sacrifice nuance to a more limited scope. After all, leftists are notorious for the many fine-grained distinctions between the various positions among them, which can lead to counterproductive infighting online and feeds into the stereotype of the interminable leftist planning committee. But in the context of Shaw’s argument in favor of political violence, this could-be hair-splitting serves him well when he has to tread carefully through a minefield of highly-contentious political claims.
No doubt, the care and nuance of Shaw’s arguments is lost in the Twitter rush to criticize his overall message. But the analysis better serves a strategic response against fascism than does Stanley’s because it speaks from a well-defined ideological position of its own. How Fascism Works is certainly a book that speaks more from the position and to the proponents of liberalism, a fact that Stanley would not be likely to disavow. But his own ideological position is not as clearly staked out as is Shaw’s, perhaps, as academics are wont to remind us, because that is outside the scope of the project.
A further instance of instructive disagreement between Shaw and Stanley concerns their historical treatment of fascism. Shaw seems to demand more clear historical lines. Stanley tends to extend at least elements of fascism backward to the antebellum American South. Granted, it is absolutely correct to see the race system of the United States as an important predecessor to the racial hierarchies of fascism and perhaps as a necessary condition of fascism in its uniquely American manifestation. It is common to see the Ku Klux Klan’s emergence during Reconstruction used as a case study in proto-fascism. Hitler himself would look to the race laws of the United States for inspiration and even concluded that some instances were too rigid to enforce by German standards.
In a critical review of How Fascism Works, Shaw pushes back against the analytical tactics of Stanley, which Shaw accuses of being “anachronistic.” This reveals Shaw may be a more committed Marxist than Stanley. For Stanley, rooted in an analytic style of philosophy, it might make sense to derive a principle from historical examples such as Italian fascism and Nazism in the twentieth century, and then use those principles to identify past fascisms, prior to the arrival of what actually carries the name “fascism.” Shaw rejects this. Ideas are tied to their historical, material conditions, and to project ideological identification back into history is to empty them of the particular content by which they are determined in the political practices that actually define them. Philosophers, however, are wont to commit this type of projection. A good example is the argument that Socrates, because of the critical eye he directs toward his own culture and its practices, is the first “modern” man. Though, historically, modernity is typically reserved for discussions of the period following the Renaissance, sometimes slated to start around 1641 with the publication of Descartes Meditations, or, as Pfau and Gillespie have argued, with the works of William of Ockham.
Again, Stanely has argued that Shaw misreads him here, that he is not identifying the antebellum South as fully fascist, but is, appropriately, pointing out important ideological elements of fascism that existed in that time.
A Response Ensconced on the Left
What Shaw’s arguments reveal, and his insistence on close attention to the material history within which political ideologies arise, is that he is committed to a particular brand of existentialist Marxism. It is easy to imagine that Sartre might accuse Stanley of “bourgeois idealism.” For Sartre, bourgeois liberals became easily infatuated with ideas and concepts which they mistakenly assigned a special causal force in the world—a great idea can change the world. But, according to Sartre, this confuses the source of our ideas and covers over the dialectical movement between human beings as they live their lives from the first personal point of view and the material conditions in which they live. It is not that the material conditions determine ideas in a strict sense. Sartre still believes in human freedom, after all. But, even granting their freedom, human beings cannot conceive of ideas in a vacuum and whatever ideas they do concoct are done so only from their particular situation given a concrete historical reality. This makes our ideas relevant to our times. We might use ideas to understand the past—especially how that past relates to our present and the future yet to come—but we cannot really attribute those ideas to the past, in part or in whole.
It is no coincidence, then, that Shaw is also concerned with political practices that should or should not be deployed in the current situation that we face. Acknowledging the culpability of those who passively allow fascists to spread their propaganda and gain power, or worse, actively defend those efforts in the name of liberal principles of free speech, Shaw nevertheless limits justifiable targets of antifascist violence. There is a well-known joke recounted by Shaw, “What do you call ten people sitting at a dinner table with a Nazi? . . . Eleven Nazis.” He admits that this joke leads to an unsettling implication as those in the company of Nazis are now guilty of being fellow travelers, as the post-war lingo goes. But Shaw restricts his arguments in favor of antifascist violence to “willing collaborators with Far Right and fascist groups in the midst of social mobilizations.”
The emphatic caveat should perhaps ease some liberal concerns. Afterall, many liberals who facilitate fascists are doing so as well-intentioned dupes. The cause of free speech is, in principle, a noble one. But put into the service of defending fascists, the principle of free speech will lead to its own destruction. Once in power, as has been observed again and again and again, fascists have absolutely no intention of protecting free speech. They are happy to indulge in the rhetoric of freedom under a liberal regime. Once power is transferred to fascistic forces, however, those freedoms are swiftly crushed. There’s no need to punch these well-meaning liberals, though they should certainly be ridiculed for their extreme political naivete.
The kind of political violence Shaw is willing to defend is one rooted in community self-defense. Fascists are a threat to any number of communities, especially minority, marginalized, and other vulnerable populations. The end of fascistic politics, if it is not outright genocide, is an immense amount of human suffering as their policies of ethnic and political cleansing are enforced through violence and heavy-handed policing. That paramilitary organizations are among the first explicitly fascistic groups to crop up should give some indication into how they would ultimately implement their plans.
It should be noted that this element of fascism is distinct from Marxist class-struggle. Directed at hoarded wealth, which is external to an individual or group, Marxists can appeal to the freedom of their political opponents to join their cause, relinquish their amassed wealth, and join in the effort to redistribute that wealth in an equitable manner. Fascists are rather focused on elements of persons that are not external to them in the way that capital is, and instead condemn what are taken to be intrinsic attributes of their person—race, biological function, gender, sexual orientation, and so on. Whether or not these features are in fact intrinsic to persons is beside the point. Under fascist ideology, they are inseparable from the person or group being targeted and thus the logical conclusion of the ideology is extermination, radical exclusion through segregation, deportation, and the loss of human rights generally. Again, this is a line of thinking that emerges from the synthesis of existentialism with Marxism. It is not, perhaps, entirely unique to the existentialists, but it is certainly a prominent feature of their political analysis, for instance, in Beauvoir’s The Ethics of Ambiguity (1947).
Through this avenue, antifascists might escape the criticism that they, because of their sometimes-violent tactics, are “the real fascists.” The criticism is one Shaw takes head on, though he believes that it is usually leveled in bad faith. It amounts to mere wordplay that attempts to position political ideologies such as liberalism against insurrectionary politics and delimit who has the legitimate recourse to violence. Thus, on the one hand, critics suggest antifascist violence is illegitimate because it is insurrectionary and legitimate violence is only wielded by state forces which maintain the status quo under the guise of “law and order.” On the other hand, fascists themselves can duplicitously call antifascists “the real fascists” while presenting themselves as guardians of legitimate law and order, playing into their alignment with liberals in favor of the capitalist project of settler colonialism. In this way, the forces of liberalism are brought into collusion with fascists against leftist political coalitions that are antifascist and which deploy a variety of tactics that are non-violent on the whole. Indeed, Shaw is correct to point out that the vast majority of antifascist organizing is non-violent in nature and most often focuses on community development, education, mutual aid, and defense.
There is a further, more important development that follows from the fascist insistence on the inherent inferiority of those they seek to oppress. It distinguishes insurrectionary fascism by their opposition to egalitarianism. The culmination of Shaw’s arguments positions an egalitarian insurrectionist antifascism in the broader struggle against settler-colonialism, which is what makes it so threatening to the liberal order. The analysis of settler-colonialism, in which Shaw brings together many threads of critique from anti-colonial theorists to inform his philosophy of antifascism, is among the elements that make the book so engaging.
The Interrelation of Colonialism and Fascism
The arguments take off from Amié Césaire’s 1950 Discourse on Colonialism, where the Martinician philosopher and poet writes of “Hitlerism” that the “very distinguished, very humanistic, very Christian bourgeois of the twentieth century” were not opposed to fascism “before it was inflicted on them, that they absolved it, shut their eyes to it, legitimized it, because, until then, it had been applied only to non-European peoples.” This sentiment provides Shaw with an avenue from which to make a fundamental departure from the typical liberal diagnosis of contemporary fascism. It situates The Philosophy of Antifascism solidly in the anti-colonial literature and brands its leftism as an emancipatory project distinct from liberalism’s commitment to the capitalist status quo, which Césaire does not believe can be meaningfully divorced from colonialism itself.
The relationship with anti-colonialism is, by itself, not entirely unique, though Shaw’s commitment to and in-depth exploration of this dimension of anti-fascism is absolutely unique and a reason why his book should be widely read. Authors Like Stanley make important nods and caveats to anti-colonial politics—Frantz Fanon supplies the epigraph to Chapter One of How Fascism Works—but the contribution can be relatively superficial. Perhaps the difference deepens the divide between the two approaches, because so many anti-colonial philosophers like Césaire and Fanon are explicitly anti-capitalist and criticize the aspects of liberalism that are put into the service of empire such that the separation of liberalism from capitalism is rendered suspect.
These claims, synthesized from anti-colonial literature, are what make the book so jarring and unsavory to the liberal readership which is happy to nod along with Stanley’s arguments. Shaw implicates even the most well meaning liberal do-gooder as a part of settler-colonialism and does nothing to allow for self-absolution. Again, there are remnants of Sartre’s own assessment, made in his introduction to Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth (1961), that “our noble souls are racist.” General audiences recoil at texts which attempt to hold a mirror up to them so that they can see themselves implicated in the crimes of the very people they are hoping to condemn.
It is ironic then, that Stanley insists that fascism is the “politics of us and them,” the subtitle of his book. While it is true that Stanley himself does not encourage the “us and them” dynamic, his readership would very much like to see the fascist threat as “them” and be able to situate themselves safely within a milieu of “us,” the good antifascists. Notice too that this psychological trick facilitates the liberal accusation that antifa are the “real fascists,” because their potential violence, seen as illegitimate in the liberal’s eyes, is insurrectionary. So, antifa is disavowed and the “real,” the good, kind of antifascism is non-violent.
Shaw’s The Philosophy of Antifascism does not let us off the hook and his arguments show why fascism is so pernicious and hard to combat. Indeed, if it is possible to see oneself as complicit in settler-colonialism, in the very system that gives rise to full-fledged fascism in the first place, then it starts to become obvious why fascism becomes nigh impossible to combat within the framework of that system itself. The way violence is regulated and monopolized by the state within that system becomes untenable, and insurrectionary violence against the system starts to look like it could be plausibly legitimized within the narrow scope of preventing and defending against that system’s worst atrocities—atrocities committed by fascists as the most eager and willing agents of that system’s extreme.
With so many warnings coming from within the liberal order, notably even from Madeleine Albright in Fascism: A Warning (2018), Shaw’s Philosophy of Antifascism is an important contribution that provides an external intervention into the popular narrative. Clearly argued, largely free of excessive academic jargon while still being intellectually rigorous and thoroughly sourced, the book deserves a wide readership precisely because it challenges those easier narratives that let well-meaning liberals off the hook. More than simply diagnosing fascism as a contemporary problem, Shaw provides a distinct and coherent framework within which to situate not only the problem but, more importantly, a programmatic approach to its solution.
Donovan is a philosopher, essayist, and writer of fiction. He currently teaches eighth-grade science and offers philosophical consultations with the Lawn Chair Philosophy Foundation.
The author of two novels and a collection of philosophical essays, his work has appeared or is forthcoming in Emerge, Queen Mob’s Tea House, and Whitehot Magazine of Contemporary Art.
He holds a Ph.D. in Philosophy and Literature from Purdue University.