In a TransAdvocate article entitled “On the Ethics and Utility of Violence,” an anonymous contributor makes the case for such violent acts as punching Richard Spencer, a white supremacist who has invoked Nazi slogans, in the middle of an interview while he was assaulting no one and posed no physical threat to anyone. Far from a “victory,” I find that act of violence a surrender to the ethos of patriarchy and domination, as opposed to the values of feminism, democracy, and active nonviolent resistance to racism and militarism.
Sadly, over three decades after the publication of such classic works as Barbara Deming’s Revolution and Equilibrium (1971) and Gene Sharp’s The Politics of Nonviolent Action (1973), there are still basic misunderstandings about the nature of nonviolence as a religious or philosophical commitment, and nonviolent action as a practical technique of struggle often used by those who might have used armed self-defense in other circumstances.
My purpose, as a radical feminist who happens to have a religious commitment to nonviolence and more generally is interested in the very rich history of nonviolent action, including its use by women, is to clear up some of these misconceptions while also challenging the idea that a few overt white supremacists like Richard Spencer and Milo Yiannopoulos constitute the main threat to peace and equality in our 21st-century world. This is by no means to minimize the dangers of outright fascism in the US today, only to emphasize how pervasive racism and patriarchy really are, and how challenging a struggle we therefore face.
1. Principled nonviolence and the right of armed self-defense
While I can’t speak categorically for everyone committed to nonviolence as a religious or philosophical principle, I can say that most of us recognize a right to armed self-defense or defense of others and appreciate the heroism with which this right can be exercised.
A famous example will have occurred 800 years ago next summer, when a group of women and girls in the city of Toulouse on 25 June 1218 resisted the siege of their town by crewing a catapult and firing a stone that killed Simon de Montfort, a leader of the so-called Albigensian Crusade, more aptly known as the Languedoc Genocide of 1208-1242.
This campaign had been called by Pope Innocent III to put down religious dissent in the region of Languedoc (now mostly within the borders of France and Italy), the home of a sophisticated culture renowned for its poetry and music, and for a leadership role for women in these arts and elsewhere. The state-and-church-sponsored terrorism of the “Albigensian Crusade” was to give birth around 1230 to the Inquisition, with the women of Toulouse as one of the first targets.
As Gandhi said of the Polish cavalry troops who in 1939 courageously confronted German tanks, so we might say of these women of Toulouse, that their armed resistance against all odds seems “almost nonviolent.” And the violent and homicidal forces they faced, forces intent upon burning alive those deemed “heretics” (contrary to centuries of Church doctrine against the death penalty for heresy), teach us another disconcerting lesson.
While Andrea Dworkin’s Woman Hating (1974) is a powerful statement about examples of patriarchal violence including the Inquisition and Burning Times, she seems mistaken in associating these events with the “Dark Ages,” generally taken to be the period with a relative “darkness” or dearth of historical sources between the fall of the Roman Empire and the rise of Charlemagne, say roughly 500-800.
However, the yet more alarming reality is that the Albigensian Crusade and advent of the Inquisition in the earlier 13th century coincide with a great period of civilization, preceded by what is often called the “12th-century Renaissance” when women such as St. Hildegard von Bingen and Marie de France were contributing to sacred and secular literature alike. Even as the massacre at Beziers (1209) and the siege and later Inquisition at Toulouse were going on, the University of Paris was the center of a thriving intellectual life.
Likewise, the most intense phases of the witch-hunting mania in the later 15th-17th centuries coincide with the Renaissance, and with the art of Shakespeare and Cervantes. It was a time, like ours, of strange and brutal contrasts. Thus in the second decade of the 17th century, even as women were being persecuted and hanged for witchcraft in England with the approval of King James I, Queen Anne and other women in her circle were sharing festivities in which they celebrated Amazon herstory and culture.
Being truly committed to nonviolence means recognizing the pervasiveness of patriarchal oppression, with racism and imperialism as leading and sadly continuing forms of oppression from the age of Columbus on. And it also means empathizing with those who use armed self-defense in confronting this reality. Thus Barbara Deming writes with great respect of Franz Fanon, an advocate of violent resistance and revolution as responses to colonialism, even while exploring the negative consequences of violence as honestly acknowledged by Fanon himself.
Likewise, those of us committed to nonviolence can recognize the right of elements who style themselves “Antifa” (i.e. “Antifascist”) to armed defense when confronted with an actual armed attack against themselves or others, as in the episode described by Dr. Cornel West in which he and others in Charlottesville were protected from an armed onslaught by Antifa forces. Acknowledging this basic human right does not necessarily imply agreement with other forms of violence that at least some activists styling themselves “Antifa” practice or advocate.
2. Nonviolent action as a technique of struggle
While those of us ourselves committed to nonviolence as a principle generally recognize the right to armed self-defense, conversely nonviolent action is a technique of struggle which can be and often has been used by people quite ready to engage in armed self-defense in at least some circumstances, but who find nonviolent means as the most available or practical choice in a given situation.
One striking example is the nonviolent Hungarian Autonomy movement led by Francis Deak (Ferenc Deak de Kehida) in 1850-1867, after Hungary’s armed revolt against Austria in 1848-1849 was violently suppressed by military invasion and executions. The methods of struggle included noncooperation with Austrian rule and the building of alternative economic and political institutions. So successful was this nonviolent campaign following the military defeat that Arthur Griffith, a lover of Irish liberty and founder of the Sinn Fein movement (Gaelic for “We Ourselves”) for Independence, published in 1904 a book entitled The Resurrection of Hungary: A Parallel for Ireland.
Honest advocacy of nonviolent action as a technique of liberation must include acknowledging that some notable victories against repressive regimes have not brought the end of oppression, or even necessarily an overall improvement in the lives of the common people, and especially the people who are most oppressed.
One dramatic example is the events of April-May 1944 in El Salvador, where the dictator Maximiliano Hernandez Martinez was able to put down an attempted rebellion by members of the armed forces. These rebels were attracted to the same values celebrated by the “Four Freedoms” of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt of the US, ironically an ally of Martinez and his murderous regime which had slaughtered tens of thousands of Indigenous peasants in putting down a revolt of 1932, an event known as La Matanza (“The Slaughter”).
As actual or suspected supporters of the revolt were horribly tortured and murdered, a nonviolent “strike of folded arms” (la huelga de brazos caidos) took shape, resulting in an economic shutdown of the country. On May 9, Martinez resigned and fled the country.
Tragically, however, the fall of the dictatorship did not lead to a wider movement for social reform or revolution capable of challenging the domination of the “Fourteen Families” who controlled the land and much of the economy. Ultimately, in the 1970’s, a new wave of repression and death squad activity took shape, leading to the horrible civil war and slaughter of the 1980’s where one of the death squads named itself after Maximiliano Hernandez Martinez and practiced his style of lethal repression against progressive activists.
Radical feminists, whether committed to nonviolence or otherwise, recognize that patriarchy with its patterns of domestic and reproductive enslavement for women; repression and dehumanization of women who do not reproduce or fit into its patterns of domesticity; violent aggression on all scales from interpersonal to international; and related patterns of racism, xenophobia, colonialism, homophobia, transphobia, binarism, and interphobia, is present within social systems and also internalized to one degree or another within us all.
Thus nonviolent action is an arduous and imperfect technique for moving toward the nonsexist and peaceful world we seek. The many successful uses of nonviolent action, ranging from the secession of the plebeians from Rome as a method for demanding and gaining a more just constitution from the upper class patricians to the creative nonviolent tactics of Black Lives Matter in confronting deadly police violence and systemic racism, are hopeful but incomplete steps toward our goal of peace with justice.
3. Neither nonviolent nor violent struggle offers perfect safety
A saying popular during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950’s and 1960s tells us that “Freedom Isn’t Free.” Whether one resists violently or nonviolently, life and limb are often at risk. The martyrdom of Viola Liuzzo of Detroit, a woman from a poor family with white privilege, who was in Alabama supporting the Selma-to-Montgomery March in 1965 for voting rights when she was shot dead by members of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), illustrates this point. The killing of Heather Heyer, another woman with white privilege who was nonviolently marching against racism in Charlottesville this August 12 when she was killed by a domestic terrorist who drove his car into the group of activists of which she was a part (injuring at least 19 others), is a recent illustration.
The results of struggle in general and nonviolent struggle, in particular, are often unpredictable. Two examples under the Nazis in the earlier part of 1943 may demonstrate this point.
In February 1943, members of the White Rose resistance group were arrested after an attempt to distribute leaflets at Munich University. Three members of the group, sister and brother Sophie and Hans Scholl and their friend Christoph Probst, were promptly tried before a Nazi “People’s Court” and guillotined on 22 February 1943, at least four others executed later, and a number of others imprisoned. For those acquainted with the genocidal policies of the Third Reich, including the “Final Solution” of outright extermination for Jews and Roma, this ruthlessness toward nonviolent opponents should hardly come as a surprise, nor the execution of armed partisans and randomly selected civilians alike in response to violent forms of resistance.
(The courageous struggle of the White Rose also shows how the choice of nonviolent methods need not imply a commitment to nonviolence in principle. Thus Sophie Scholl had earlier told a friend that it was an embarrassment to Germany that no one could be found to shoot Hitler: “If a man can’t manage it, a woman should.” Under other circumstances, she might have waged armed struggle, as did many women in the French Resistance or Maquis.)
Also in February 1943, the Nazis began a roundup of all Jews remaining in the Berlin area. When Jewish men with non-Jewish wives were included in the sweep, these non-Jewish wives and other relatives demonstrated publicly against the deportations at a Jewish community center known as the Rosenstrasse. This unprecedented spectacle of a public mass demonstration of an estimated 600 to 1000 people in the shadow of the Gestapo led by early March to the release of Jewish men in these intermarriages. This episode has become a topic of controversy and competing explanations among historians specializing in nonviolent action and others.
A disputed point is whether the Gestapo originally intended to round up and deport Jewish men in mixed marriages, in which case the Rosenstrasse protest saved Jewish lives. Or was the arrest of these men outside the scope of the Gestapo’s intentions for the roundup, in which case the protest would have merely given it an added incentive to walk back a “mistake” not part of the “correct” policy for the Final Solution?
Regardless of the answer, active and very largely successful nonviolent resistance in that same year of 1943 to anti-Jewish policies in Denmark and Bulgaria tells us that such resistance to the Final Solution could and did save Jewish lives. However, success was conditioned on the right conditions for coordinated resistance to taking shape with telling effect.
4. Peaceful assembly should not be confused with armed gatherings
The tragic events in Charlottesville have focused our attention on a vitally important distinction under the First Amendment: the distinction between free speech and peaceful assembly to express even the most outrageous viewpoints and doctrines, and armed gatherings for the purpose of intimidating peaceful residents and visitors in a community or initiating violent attacks.
As spokespeople for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) both in California and nationwide have now affirmed, to champion the right of free speech, even hate speech, is not to condone or encourage hateful acts of intimidation and violence.
Applying this distinction in practice may involve sometimes delicate line-drawing. The ACLU has accordingly announced that it will carefully review each case to weigh the rights of legitimate peaceful advocacy against the risk of incitement to violence that might be posed by weapons and other relevant factors.
5. Legitimate self-defense is distinct from violence for its own sake
The use of violence for its own sake, as in the act of punching white supremacist Richard Spencer while he was being interviewed and not physically assaulting or threatening anyone, is radically different than the use of violence in defense of self or others, as when Wonder Woman, during the Second World War, punches a Nazi in the course of a fight.
As Holly Near famously declares in a song that speaks for many in feminist, peace, and antiracist movements: “We are a gentle, angry people.” Overcoming patriarchy means at once feeling a genuine and mobilizing anger against its violent outrages, and yet responding “gently” in the sense of seeking to express that anger creatively, in ways that do not involve needlessly visiting injury upon others, even those in oppressive roles (roles which few of us totally avoid).
Legitimate self-defense or defense of others against violence, which even those of us committed to nonviolence in principle generally approve, involves the use of force in order to avoid or minimize harm to others, with any injuries to the aggressor as an unavoidable consequence of stopping or repelling the attack rather than something celebrated as a positive good.
6. Tolerating free speech does not require that we enable it
The fact that the First Amendment requires tolerating free speech and peaceful assembly even by white supremacists whose views we deplore does not imply any obligation to enable or encourage such speech by giving it a platform or venue. While the law protects much uncivil speech, this does not mean that we cannot or should not uphold standards of decency and civility and challenge those who transgress such standards even while recognizing their right to speak in appropriate public venues.
Milo Yiannopoulos, for example, has sadly distinguished himself by sexist, Islamophobic, and transphobic statements that go beyond even the advocacy of repugnant ideas to doxxing and invading the privacy of vulnerable individuals. For example, in Wisconsin, Yiannopoulos exhibited the photograph of a trans woman and exhibited his misogyny and transmisogyny by seeking to reveal identifying information about her as well as misgendering and ridiculing her.
While Yiannopoulos may have a right to express his repugnant views, his personal attacks of this sort may transgress laws against defamation and/or invasion of privacy. Such legalities aside, an academic or other community premised on civil and reasonable discourse need not enable such incivility by inviting Yiannopoulos to speak or legitimating his abuse of others as if it were constructive dialogue.
7. Feminists need to seek civil dialogue about civil dialogue
Recently the first woman to serve as Chancellor of the University of California at Berkeley, Carol Christ (a literary scholar not to be confused with the feminist theologian Carol P. Christ), announced that the coming academic year would be devoted to the theme of free speech. She wished to commemorate the Free Speech Movement of 1964-1965 at UC Berkeley which had used nonviolent methods, including mass civil disobedience, in order to win the right to distribute civil rights and other political literature on campus. At the same time, she sought to encourage a process of respectful dialogue between different views on the political spectrum.
In her statement, the Chancellor clarified her policy. Sadly, Chancellor Christ has come under attack from some people holding that free speech is inconsistent with progressive values. A far more constructive response would be to engage in a friendly way with her and other educators to seek out fair parameters for a civil and respectful dialogue between political viewpoints. For example, feminists and antiracist activists could engage with the Chancellor and other academics to establish guidelines which would disapprove of doxxing or personal attacks on people such as the trans woman whose privacy was violated by Yiannopoulos in Wisconsin.
Two assertions in Chancellor Christ’s earlier statement on free speech (see the first link in this section) provide an opening for such dialogue on the best parameters for a safe and respectful dialogue of the kind she wishes to sponsor. The first:
We have the responsibility to protect free speech. We also have the responsibility to protect the safety of our students.
Balancing these responsibilities might mean affirming the right of Milo Yiannopoulos to share his ideas if invited by a campus organization (as has reportedly happened), but also developing guidelines “to protect the safety” of students who might be vulnerable to doxxing and invasion of privacy.
Likewise, she declared:
Free speech is also having those hard discussions between people who disagree fundamentally on important issues and being able to disagree civilly and respectfully.
The expectation that speakers involved in the UC Berkeley community’s celebration of free speech will advocate and disagree “civilly and respectfully” should apply across the political spectrum, with the invasion of privacy and doxxing seen as incompatible with these norms.
8. We must not dehumanize those caught up in a dehumanizing ideology
Nazi and neo-Nazi ideologies, as well as white supremacy in general, are dehumanizing ideologies. The Maafa or African/African-American Slave Holocaust, and the Turtle Islands or Indigenous Genocide, have horribly illustrated this point since the 15th century with its advent of modern European colonialism and race ideology. As a Jewish Lesbian, I see the Shoah or European Holocaust of 1940-1945 as a continuation of these centuries-long genocides, a view expounded upon in 1950, the year of my birth, by Aimé Césaire, a poet and activist from Martinique, in his Discourse on Colonialism.
In order to counter colonialism, neocolonialism, and fascism effectively, we must seek precisely to bring out the human qualities in at least some of those caught up in these dehumanizing ideologies, even while resolutely resisting the ideologies themselves. While it is unlikely that nonviolent resistance during the Second World War in places such as Denmark would have changed Hitler’s values, it did evidently have an effect on the minds and values of such Nazi functionaries as Werner Best — or, at least, persuaded them that Danish opposition to genocide must be taken into account in Best’s calculations on how to fulfill his own ambitions.
Writing from a socialist perspective, Veronica Tash considers the problem of neo-Nazi ideology at length and reaches the natural and liberating conclusion that even members of neo-Nazi movements have certain human rights which wise antifascists must respect.
In raising the philosophical question of what Nazis might “deserve,” Tash at once expresses her utter (and quite justified) contempt for Naziism as an ideology with deadly consequences, and emphasizes that whatever those “just desserts” might be, we do not deserve to dehumanize ourselves by seeking to return evil for evil. I might add that current international law, including the Statute of Rome for the International Criminal Court, properly rejects the death penalty and other dehumanizing punishments for even genocide and other war crimes and crimes against humanity, providing instead for humane imprisonment under conditions that facilitate rehabilitation.
She also draws an invaluable distinction between seeking to have neo-Nazis and other white supremacists removed from positions where this “poses a great threat such as police officer or legislator,” and seeking to have them fired from any job they might hold — e.g. as a janitor, auto mechanic, or pizza delivery person. As Tash declares, if we hold that everyone has a basic human right to a decent job or career and/or decent income, then seeking categorically to deprive someone of their livelihood is “nothing short of a betrayal of [our] core principles.”
Such a scorched earth policy toward someone’s ability to survive seems more like the blacklisting of the McCarthy era, where the purpose was indeed to ruin the lives of those deemed “socialist” or “subversive,” rather than of a feminist or socialist movement seeking to distinguish between a human being and the dangerous and detestable political movement into which they have been drawn in one way or another.
9. We should be strategic on when and how to confront white supremacists
It has been well said, by the Movement for Black Lives and others, that it is absolutely critical that those favoring racial justice, and especially those of us with white privilege, need to show up on the streets as well as in the tweets and other social media in order to confront racism and reveal the diversity of the movement. This is as true as ever, as lethal violence by police forces continues to kill and endanger People of Color, as well at times as those with white privilege.
However, in dealing with neo-Nazi and other private white supremacist groups, we can learn an important lesson from the growth of the Hitler movement in Germany during the Weimar Republic (1923-1933): fascists often seek and welcome violent street confrontations, and use these incidents both to recruit and to create a general atmosphere of chaos in which public opinion will tend to place blame upon “the Left” — or, in Donald Trump’s language, the “Alt-Left.”
Showing up for peace and justice does not require us to engage fascists on their terms, and thus often play into their strategy and tactics instead of ours. As a maxim of the legal profession puts it: “Don’t let your opponent write your brief.”
This does not mean ignoring the threat of neo-Nazis and white supremacists, but rather meeting them in a carefully considered way that can reduce their strength and increase ours. As nonviolent and/or guerrilla struggle generally, often avoiding direct confrontations that may help the other side is a good strategy. We might instead, for example, have a counter-rally at some distance from a fascist event, seeking at once to isolate the fascist gathering and minimize the attention it gets, and to show the antiracist solidarity of a broad community coalition.
While opposing neo-Nazi and “Alt-Right” movements in a strategically well-considered way, we should also join Black Lives Matter in focusing on a state-sponsored threat to life, liberty, and community self-determination: militarized police and a military mentality applied to police training. The indoctrination of law enforcement officers that it is their task to “kill,” using techniques that often emulate the Vietnam-era military training that produced troops uncommonly willing to kill civilians as well as opposing combatants, is a deadly threat well explained.
Although this “Bulletproof Warrior” mentality, as it was termed in a training program now known as Calibre Press, is not explicitly racist, the implications in a white supremacist society are quite clear. According to this training ideology, the vast majority of citizens — maybe on the order of 99% — are innocent and harmless “sheep” unable to defend themselves. The remainder is either “wolves” who violently prey on the sheep in a conscienceless and sociopathic fashion; or “sheepdogs” who use violence with conscience and empathy to protect the “sheep” against these “wolves.”
On one level, this approach tends to be implicitly racist because police officers seeking to tell the “sheep” from the “wolves” will tend to bring their conditioned reflexes of white supremacy and racism into the process. On another and related level, as pointed out by Steve Featherstone, the ideology of the police as “sheepdogs” with a task of “protecting” ordinary citizens or sheep leads to a mindset of superiority and domination which is especially harmful to Black communities and their sense of autonomy:
The sheepdog metaphor valorizes the warrior ethos: The sheepdog does not serve the flock, he protects it. But without the legitimacy conferred by the trust and consent of those being protected, protection is not policing — it’s occupation.
Indeed the Black Panther movement of 50 years ago had as a prime grievance the fact that police were “occupying” Black communities like “foreign troops.” From a feminist perspective, we may also notice that in the above quote, the sheepdog is gendered “he”: while women can certainly take part in either armed or nonviolent defense, the “sheepdog” role has a hierarchical aspect that may best fit with patriarchy and male as well as white supremacy.
Addressing this continuing lethal reality of state-sponsored violence and white supremacy in action may place the very real dangers of private neo-Nazi and related movements in a larger perspective and underscore the need to support Black Lives Matter as a nonviolent force for justice and community self-determination.
10. Neo-Nazis must not distract us from other threats to world peace
Nonviolently countering neo-Nazi and other explicitly white supremacist groups is a vitally important task, but should not distract us from other tasks essential to the struggle for peace and justice. Rather, we must draw connections for a better view of the overall picture.
One purpose of racist ideologies is to divide those who might otherwise unite for a more just society and the world. This was traditionally one of the main objectives of legalized racial segregation: to direct the anger and frustration of those with white privilege in the lower classes against People of Color, rather than against the system that exploited them. As the saying goes: “The rich white folks got the railroads; the poor white folk got Jim Crow.”
This is true today of Trumpism and the “Alt-Right”: hatred against immigrants, the Black and Latinx communities, and Muslims is stirred up to divert the attention of many people with white privilege who have low or moderate incomes and in fact are in danger, under Trumpism, of losing their health insurance and other benefits which should be universal human rights for all.
The same classism may operate, in a more “moderate” form, when leaders of the Democratic Party in the US appeal to the “middle class” while neglecting the poor, including the working poor, many of whom (especially those with white privilege, including a large number of women) took this silence as an invitation to vote for Donald Trump. A “preferential option for the poor,” as voiced by the Catholic Bishops of Latin America at Medellin, Columbia in 1968, is not only good theology but good politics in the “age of Trump,” and a litmus test for any movement which claims to be progressive.
Another dangerous diversion from the economic and ecological crisis which the world faces, with global warming as a threat already upon us, is a movement toward a new Cold War between the US and Russia. Too often, resistance to the Trump Administration is equated with anti-Russian sentiment and enthusiasm for a renewed military confrontation with Putin.
Trump is accused of “treason” because of his alleged collusion with Putin, a charge which shows mainly either ignorance of or willful disregard for the United States Constitution. The Constitution defines only one crime, treason, and limits it to waging war on the United States, or adhering to the enemies of the United States, giving them aid and comfort (Article III, Section 3). Since the US has neither declared war on Russia nor is involved in an actual war with Russia, Trump’s alleged involvement with Russia cannot constitute treason, whatever other legal crimes or impeachable offenses he may have committed.
In a democratic socialist analysis, the Trump-Putin partnership may illustrate mainly a certain honor among capitalist kleptocrats, with both leaders ready to use or encourage ruthless responses to their critics, to promote homophobia and transphobia for political profit, and generally to place the profit motive above the common good. If these two superpowers were instead represented by leaders such as Mikhail or Raisa Gorbachev, and Bernie Sanders or Barbara Lee, a US-Russia partnership would be a progressive and praiseworthy alliance.
What we do not need as an alternative to the Trump-Putin connection, however uncertain or temporary, is a renewal of the Cold War without the caution which prevailed during the original Cold War, especially after the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962, had amply persuaded both White House and Kremlin of the dangers of direct military confrontations between these superpowers. Recent proposals for US intervention in Syria that may lead to such confrontations with Russian forces illustrate the dangers of a mentality of “American Exceptionalism” that no longer regards Russia as a real superpower, despite its continued possession of thousands of nuclear weapons.
Beyond the risks of actual nuclear war, such a new Cold War would divert into an accelerated arms race and other military spending of the resources desperately needed to address global warming and make possible a decent living standard for every human being.
The Project for the New American Century (PNAC) in a report of 2000 entitled Rebuilding America’s Defenses frankly advocated world domination as the goal of US foreign policy, and such an objective would seem contrary to the Nuremberg Principles against the planning and waging of aggressive war. Linked are some sources for the PNAC endeavor.
While PNAC itself may belong to the era of President George W. Bush, the kind of global militarism advocated by this project often seems a point of general bipartisan consensus in the US. Challenging this consensus, and moving toward a multipolar world based on the rule of law and universal human rights, is an urgent agenda where countering neo-Nazi and other explicitly white supremacist groups is one indispensable task to be placed in this larger context.