Today, a group called Ocean State Against Hate (OSAH) is going to the Rhode Island State House in an effort to forcibly prevent the rightist group Resist Marxism from holding a rally. This is a sequel to a similar confrontation August 4, where OSAH managed to physically shut down Resist Marxism’s effort to inaugurate its Providence chapter with a State House rally. I’m writing this because even though I know and like many of the people in OSAH, OSAH’s actions and goals are very much against what many on the left believe, and it’s time someone spoke up for the humane, creative, longstanding principles of the left that OSAH is trampling on.
OSAH is a coalition of groups which by no means represents all of the left in Rhode Island, but they present things as if the approach they stand for is the voice of the left against fascism. Their approach is to label some of their opponents, such as the members of Resist Marxism, as fascists and Nazis, and to forcibly prevent these alleged “Nazis” from speaking in public. OSAH members portray themselves in terms which, if you could take their self-promotion seriously, would make them among the greatest heroes ever: they say they are the ones who will “stop Hitler“, “ensure that there is no platform for fascists in Providence or anywhere“, and of course they will defeat hate.
I try to use some common sense, and I think we should doubt whether OSAH is as wonderful as their rhetoric says, especially since their lack of self-criticism suggests that they may have gotten a little too thrilled with their own self-praise. OSAH and similar “Antifa” groups tend to label a vague assemblage of opponents as all “fascists” and “Nazis” — in fact these fighting groups call themselves “Antifa” as short for “anti-fascist.” But even if everyone at the conservative rallies which OSAH targets turned out to be genuine dangerous Nazis one and all, it would still make sense to question whether OSAH’s cliched “no platform” approach was is really the best strategy in the long run.
What OSAH claims is that their approach is just the only kind of antifascism there is: “A commitment to antifascism means providing no platform, allowing no recruitment or dissemination of ideas.” That shows how little they grasp history. History shows that people on the left who try to forcibly shut down “fascists” often end up spurring an increase in fascism; while on the other hand, there have long been many people on the left who oppose fascism while respecting the right to free speech, even for their right-wing opponents.
One thing I’ll do in this article is to give a report of what I saw at OSAH’s only previous action, when they shut down the August 4 Resist Marxism rally at the State House. And I’ll say why I disagree with what OSAH did then and now. (I was at that August 4 confrontation and tried to stand in the middle of things, right where the OSAH members and the conservatives were facing each other.) OSAH often isn’t careful about who they describe as fascists, and it’s important to make sure that their slanted picture of what they’re doing isn’t the only one out there.
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Because I don’t want to deceive myself or anyone else by slanted language, I’ll just use words in their ordinary meaning. Take “hate,” for instance; the plain meaning of the word is that it’s an emotion, an intensely hostile feeling that makes people want to cause pain or harm to somebody. Hate is bad, but I’m not going to slant my language to minimize the hate that people on the left (including me) feel, and I’m not going to overplay the hate that exists on the right-wing side. Any serious political movement, left or right, will usually include at least a little hate within the mix of emotions it stirs up inside its members; I’ve felt political hate too, even though I don’t think that emotion makes the world better. I suppose a serious political movement could be more or less free from hate if its members made strenuous efforts to train their hearts and nurture one another’s consciences, but very few political movements bother to try doing that. Certainly OSAH doesn’t, and I’ll be honest about the fact that there’s a good deal of hate both by OSAH and its opponents. Sure, you can claim to be “against hate” as OSAH does, but it’s no good to just label one group of right-wing positions as hate and ignore the hate on your side.
The word “violence” is similar. I know some on the left try to redefine “violence” in ways that minimize the possibility of violence by the left, while stretching the range of stuff that can be labeled as violence when the left’s opponents do it. That’s a recipe for bad analysis. The kinds of dynamics that motivate violence or result from violence are pretty much the same no matter whether I do it or you do it, since human nature is the same no matter which side does this stuff. If you want to understand how violence works or doesn’t work politically, you have to look at the dynamics of human nature that are involved in violence, and notice how these dynamics keep working the same way no matter who’s doing stuff. The way it feels from the inside when you smash someone else’s stuff, or the way it feels from the inside when someone else smashes your own personal stuff that embodies a big part of your life, are things that feel the same no matter whether the person doing the smashing is on the left or the right. I’m sure violence is sometimes justified, but if we’re trying to work out when it’s okay to be violent, it’s more honest to face how it really is violence while looking at whether violence can sometimes be justifiable. If words like “hate”, “violence”, etc., are all twisted to mean basically “stuff we consider to be aligned with the right wing and not okay”, we’ll have too little vocabulary left to have sensitive and caring discussions of what we should do and why. In fact, it’s well-known that slanted language about your opponents often becomes a cheap excuse for engaging in violence againdest them, which is why I’m trying to refrain from slanting things.
What happened in the August rally
To be honest, the August 4 rally at the State House had a lot of hate on both sides. One big sign said “Make noise if you hate alt-right, facscist scum”, and you hardly needed the word “hate” there to show that many in OSAH hated the whole Resist Marxism side. The sign said to “make noise” because OSAH started by using drums and hundreds of voices to try to shout down the Resist Marxism rally, but it didn’t end there. Only a few minutes into the Resist Marxism rally, people from OSAH repeatedly darted into the Resist Marxism rally and grabbed sound equipment, and the equipment was then pulled into the OSAH side and destroyed. It looked more or less like an agreed-on move by the different OSAH people involved. Later the Resist Marxism tents were pulled down.
Naturally, when they grabbed the equipment, scuffles ensued, though fortunately no one was seriously hurt. Like a lot of what OSAH did, the strategy of grabbing sound equipment seemed like OSAH didn’t mind doing things that were likely to spur escalation. After the equipment was destroyed, one person from OSAH taunted the Resist Marxism people, asking how much they paid for it and taking a tone of sarcastic commiseration about their loss. Anyone with common sense would know that this kind of destruction and taunting is likely to spur more physical retaliation either immediately or over time. The Resist Marxism people didn’t do much to retaliate immediately when faced with that and other examples of taunting, but it was clear that all the taunting would increase the chance that Resist Marxism people would come back to Providence to do more. Provoking Resist Marxism to come back was actually the opposite of what OSAH claimed its aim was, but OSAH didn’t have the self-discipline to rein in their hostile emotions.
In fact it was clear that many on both sides were spoiling for a physical fight. It has long been part of the rhetoric of Resist Marxism and its allied groups that they need to defend constitutional rights and their nation against dangerous violent communists. They emphasize how ready they are for intense, brutal violence in response to Antifa attacks. Each side, the Resist Marxism side and the Antifa side, talks about how ready they are to fight back against the other side’s violence. And then each side acts outraged about their opponents’ statements of being willing to fight back and treats those as proof that their opponents are dangerously aggressive. There are quite a few examples of actual serious bodily violence on both sides, and people keep pointing to their videos of their opponents’ violence as if it justifies being violent more, with the constant refrain that the police won’t protect us.
What’s left unspoken is that quite a few people on each side happen to enjoy beating each other up, and their talk about how violent the other side is turns out to be something of an excuse for people who never seem to take much responsibility for their own violent tendencies. There’s a danger of greater escalation over time, although I should acknowledge that OSAH deserves credit for carefully not crossing certain lines of violence. Resist Marxism, too, has sometimes been restrained in its retaliation. Still, the situation is hardly stable. The worst act of violence on August 4 happened shortly after the rally was over. Someone from OSAH hit a Resist Marxism organizer with a bike lock — hitting him from behind, in the neck, barely missing the neck vertebrae (which could have made him paralyzed from the neck down if the blow had landed just a little differently). Something in what our folks brought to the State House that day encouraged the worse side of a lot of people. The Resist Marxism organizer who got hit, Samson Racioppi, has been accused of some violence but he’s seemingly never committed that level of violence himself, and this isn’t the first time that Antifa groups have hit people with bike locks. Both sides have a tendency to escalation, and it’s not always the right-wingers being first to escalate — sometimes the Antifa people do it first.
I’m very comfortable talking in terms of “both sides” here — it doesn’t mean that I see OSAH and Resist Marxism as morally equal, and in fact I sympathize a lot more with OSAH people, but I do see how a fair portion of the dynamics that are going on are quite similar in both groups. And it’s necessary to recognize that to understand what’s happening. Both groups include quite a few who enjoy physically attacking people, but they prefer to see their opponents as the aggressor while casting themselves as heroically saving the innocent from a powerful aggressive force. The similarities between the two sides include not only kind-of-similar approaches to violence but also a partial overlap in political views, which I’ll speak of below. But despite these similarities, both groups insist that they can’t find common ground and can’t coexist — after all, coexisting would spoil their chance to be heroically violent. It looks about as silly to me as World War I, and some of the escalation is clearly due to OSAH’s side.
Not everything on OSAH’s side was hate, certainly. One person from OSAH’s side at the August 4 confrontation had a sign “Hatred is never ceased by hating in return.” Another person told me beforehand that she was going to be a “peacemaker” at the event. But it’s fair to say that not much actual peacemaking happened. I did see just one real example of de-escalation. Two women were shouting at each other, with the woman from Resist Marxism insisting that she was not “KKK” as she was being accused of being. Her accuser from the OSAH side was encouraged to step back by a fellow progressive, who told me afterwards “I didn’t want her to get hurt” and also “I didn’t want them to flip it against us.” There were also a few not-particularly-hostile discussions between the two sides, though the conversations I saw were tense and didn’t seem really interested in looking for common ground.
In the end, OSAH did manage to forcibly shut the August rally down, aided by a heavy rain that kept down Resist Marxism’s numbers. Their initial moves of drowning out the rally and then destroying equipment were accompanied by a slow, gradual advance by OSAH into the space Resist Marxism was in. Providence police half-heartedly kept the two sides apart at first without really preventing fighting, and then as OSAH closed in, a line of state police wearing some riot gear separated the two a little more firmly. After the few people in Resist Marxism had neither sound equipment or usable tents left, they eventually decided to leave under police escort. Some people in OSAH were audibly unhappy that the “fucking police” were protecting Resist Marxism’s ability to leave in physical safety.
Who does OSAH say their opponents are?
Since I believe in human rights like free speech, I’m going to look at OSAH’s case for suppressing the Resist Marxism rallies in August and this month. I’ll start by describing who OSAH says their opponents are, and then I’ll talk about what Resist Marxism actually is. I’ll end with a defense of free speech.
OSAH people claim their opponents are Nazis, fascists, white supremacists, and KKK, although these labels are too sweeping and make some of the people they’re targeting look worse than they really are. The word “fascist” in particular has become such a slippery and overused label that, for decades, it’s had little clear meaning. OSAH recognized that Resist Marxism’s charter was written in a way that seemed just moderately right-wing, but still OSAH claimed that Resist Marxism’s events must be forcibly shut down, on the grounds that (a) Resist Marxism is linked to more violent groups and individuals and (b) Resist Marxism uses the words “cultural Marxism”, “nationalism” and “globalism” that, according to OSAH, “have fascist, anti-Semitic origins.” This analysis is definitely flawed. Lots of people say they support nationalism or oppose globalism without being anti-Semitic or fascist. It’s true there are some anti-Semites who claim to be “nationalist” or against “globalism”, but that wasn’t the original meaning of these terms as OSAH claims. In fact the Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest recorded example of the use of “globalism” is very, very different from the way a few anti-Semites use the term, and many people continue to use these terms without having any Nazi-like tendencies. This is just one of many cases where OSAH’s analysis is shoddy and based on being overeager to see right-wingers in terms of negative stereotypes. I guess I should give OSAH a little credit because they eventually retracted one of their claims, about how saying “cultural Marxism” allegedly means you’re anti-Semitic. But they haven’t put up any better analysis.
And it matters that OSAH’s analysis is so shoddy. They give a kind of defense of their overblown “Nazi” claims by saying “We must treat every instance of fascist organizing as if that group could be the next Nazi Party or Falangist movement, because by the time that most people would recognize the fascist threat, it might be too late.” In other words, OSAH is so much better than “most people” at detecting dangerous Nazi-like tendencies that we just have to accept what they say about which groups are dangerous fascists. That’s hard to believe when one of OSAH’s key claims is that simply using ordinary words like “nationalism” and “globalism” indicates that you’re “fascist, anti-Semitic”.
As a Jewish guy myself, I’m just really tired of how all sorts of groups on the left and right keep getting censored or publicly condemned because someone hastily labeled them as anti-Semitic. In lots and lots of cases, progressive or conservative groups are labeled as being anti-Semitic, or as linked to someone else who might conceivably be too friendly towards anti-Semitism, when the evidence isn’t adequate to support this. Groups working hard for Palestinian rights are constantly accused of being anti-Semitic, and even if they prove they have no prejudice against Jews, Israel supporters still condemn them for allegedly being “unintentionally” anti-Semitic just because they oppose some Israeli actions. If you have a theory about money in politics that people disagree with, and it rubs someone the wrong way, you may get called anti-Semitic. Sure, anti-Semitism is real, but when I talk to other Jewish activists here, we can sometimes see people being way too eager to fire off charges of anti-Semitism on really thin evidence. I can believe there are some anti-Semites associated with Resist Marxism. But that certainly doesn’t mean that Resist Marxism is all composed of anti-Semites or that they deserve to have their speech suppressed.
OSAH people often seem to sense that their labels of “Nazi,” “KKK,” etc., rest on shaky ground. But they don’t seem to care. Sometimes the Antifa people on OSAH’s twitter feed will even admit that some of their opponents may not be “literal Nazis.” I noticed how one OSAH sign at the August protest said, “If the swastiKKKa fits…Nazis fuck off.” The message of that was “you may think you’re not Nazis or KKK, but the Nazi/KKK label seems to fit as far as we’re concerned, so we’ll call you Nazis anyway.” And the back of that sign added “Bash the fash” (with “fash” standing for “fascists”), which is a slogan I’ve seen associated with OSAH elsewhere. What’s happening is that there’s a rush to judge people as if they were fascists, and they then get seen as just part of some vague hostile mass (“the fash”) instead of people being able to see them as actual distinct human individuals who have a diversity of concerns and good points. The cheap slogan “bash the fash” is the opposite of careful political analysis: it trains people to not really see the people we’re looking at and just promotes a knee-jerk, rhyming association: see the stereotypical “fash” and “bash” them. That is just plain dehumanization and stereotyping, and something in what OSAH is doing tends to bring out some of the worse side in a lot of people. “Bash the fash” is not what the left ideals I know would ever stand for — it’s more the kind of thing people would say during a military boot camp that trains you to commit war crimes.
One part of what OSAH says about their opponents is not that they’re anti-Semites, Nazis, etc — but just that they are “scum”, that is, an object of hate. That word came up some in the signs and chants in the August rally. I don’t believe in using loaded, dehumanizing words like that to make people comfortable with violence and suppression of people’s voices, and I don’t think that’s what the best progressive ideals have ever encouraged.
As you watch how thin OSAH’s evidence is for targeting people, you have to wonder sometimes what they are even thinking. Take Samson Racioppi, who was hit in the neck with the bike lock near his spine. Recently OSAH’s Twitter feed retweeted a list of the alleged “Nazis” in Resist Marxism, but when it came to Samson Racioppi it abandoned the Nazi label — instead it referred to him as just “whatever you call Samson, who apparently just likes to get high with Nazis.” That’s supposed to justify a vicious bike-lock attack? Does OSAH think carefully about who exactly they want to target? Or about what their constructive goals are? Or about what sort of careful strategy would ensure that they’re not damaging goals that matter? Or about how to respect the human rights of alleged Nazis/fascists? You can look far and wide without seeing much evidence that OSAH has thought carefully about these issues. Instead we just get suggestions that even if someone at Resist Marxism’s rally might not be a fascist, at least they “organize with” fascists. But that hardly answers the serious concerns about OSAH’s strategy and its ethics.
Who is Resist Marxism really?
So I tried to work out myself what Resist Marxism stands for. I think it’s a bit different from the usual stereotypes of Nazis, KKK, etc. Here are the traits I see in them:
- They’re all on the conservative side of the political spectrum. There is a tiny bit of overlap with some progressive views in some cases: maybe some criticism of Wall Street and skepticism of extreme capitalism, some hostility to the elite powers that be. But none of their members could be mistaken for a progressive overall.
- They’re nationalist, meaning that they dedicate themselves to supporting their nation against others. Just like nationalists in other parts of the world, they see themselves as defending their nation’s traditions and defending the nation against hostile outsiders. What exactly that “nation” is can vary. For some, their nationalism seems to be about things like putting the white race or white culture first, while some of them have a nationalism that’s focused on the USA and its traditions. Not all of them have white supremacy as their aim, and it would be an oversimplification to see them all that way; a few of them are people of color. They do, however, seem to share an opposition to undocumented immigrants — whatever nation they believe in, they see undocumented immigrants as a threat to it, although that usually isn’t the core of their worldview.
- They demonize socialism and the left in general. This is a very big part of their world view, and it’s no coincidence that their main group is called Resist Marxism. Like a lot of Americans who are middle-class or rich or poor, they see socialism as a danger. They are aware that the Soviet Union was oppressive and they realize that socialism has some influence in present-day America, but they go further than most people in seeing socialism as a powerful, destructive force undermining the nation they believe in. Sometimes they sound as if they envy Americans of the past who fought socialism, and they want to give themselves a chance to heroically fight socialism too. They aren’t interested in making precise distinctions between socialism, Marxism and Soviet-style oppression; it’s all the same to them. And the fact that there actually are Antifa socialists who want to suppress them from speaking in public stokes their views and makes them want to fight more. They usually don’t bother noticing that plenty of progressives don’t fit their stereotype. If occasionally they notice that many Antifa people are anarchists and not socialists, or that many on the left are against Antifa’s attempts to forcibly suppress speech, usually they just brush these details aside and just confuse progressives in general with their stereotype of commies who want to violently suppress their views.
- Violence. Resist Marxism is very interested in winning by violence. In this, they have some similarities to the Antifa groups who want to forcibly prevent them from speaking in public. Unlike Antifa groups, their strategy is to wait for others to attack them. But if it comes to serious violence, they are more prepared for large-scale brutality and more capable of winning than their left-wing opponents, assuming police do not intervene (police have sometimes interfered more with one side and sometimes more with the other, but usually not very effectively). To be clear, many in Resist Marxism would be happy with actually killing communists, which is what they see their progressive opponents as, and so they’ll do things like cheering on the car attack that killed counterprotester Heather Heyer in Charlottesville. They can’t see the difference between Heather Heyer and someone who’s working to set up a Soviet dictatorship. There’s some similarity to how Resist Marxism members themselves are mistakenly seen as if they were the lynching Ku Klux Klan or the genocidal world-war-starting Nazis.
- Conspiracy theory. They’re not good at careful thinking, and tend to believe nutty stuff about how the left, American elites, etc. are in a conspiracy to undermine their nation. It’s ironic that some people in Resist Marxism stupidly see Antifa as mere tools of powerful elites, while many on the left have a similarly naive knee-jerk assumption that Resist Marxism is itself just a tool of people in power. I don’t believe either side’s conspiracy theories — neither Resist Marxism nor Antifa is bought. One of the few positive features of both sides here is that both Resist Marxism and Antifa are dedicated to acting as groups that don’t answer to any powerful people. I’m glad the different sides that are fighting here don’t degrade themselves by taking orders from those who already hold power, but I wish they could be more constructive — to accomplish something positive in political issues you have to concentrate on putting workable changes into place that do good, and it takes discipline to focus on where the rubber meets the road in making these changes.
- Resist Marxism members are comfortable being around prejudice, without necessarily being Nazis or Ku Klux Klan. If Resist Marxism was really a Nazi group or a KKK group, they wouldn’t knowingly have people of color as their members; the real Nazi Party and the KKK never did. What is true, though, is that there’s a serious tendency towards prejudices like racism, sexism and homophobia among Resist Marxism’s members, and it seems everyone in Resist Marxism is willing to accept that or turn a blind eye to it. They aren’t comfortable using the best techniques in our culture for detecting and opposing these prejudices — techniques which were developed by the left — and instead they feel comfortable working with fellow members of Resist Marxism who share these prejudices. It’s bad that they’re drawn more to being comfortable with the prejudiced side. Their fascination with violence and nationalist myths helps lead them there. But also, their feeling that they’re under pressure from socialists helps pave the way for them to not be bothered by prejudice.
So those are the traits I see in Resist Marxism. A person can have all six of these traits without being a white supremacist or racist. But some individuals in Resist Marxism really are dangerous bigots, especially when they see themselves as resisting an aggressive left. Resist Marxism’s vision of a destructive, powerful left is kind of the glue that binds the group together.
How OSAH presents the left as pro-Soviet
I’ve mentioned that Resist Marxism sees Antifa groups and the wider left as supporters of Soviet-style oppression. One of OSAH’s worst decisions is that it keeps reinforcing that view by presenting left opposition to Resist Marxism as pro-Soviet.
OSAH’s efforts to look pro-Soviet are done through visual symbols, and there are both minor and major examples of this. A minor example is OSAH’s logo of a red-and-black star, which is a common symbol of a socialist-anarchist alliance (in fact OSAH contains both socialists and anarchists). The red star specifically is a symbol of the Russian communist government that became the Soviet Union, and it’s associated with Soviet-style government in general. That’s pretty minor, though, since OSAH seems to have stopped using the red-and-black star symbol. A more serious pro-Soviet symbol is the image which has topped OSAH’s Facebook page since before the August rally, with a red wedge and white circular indent. That’s an undeniable reference to a celebrated Russian communist artistic propaganda poster, “Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge” from 1919. That “red wedge” propaganda poster was designed to show how the forces of the Russian communist government, represented by the red wedge, will penetrate and defeat the conservative forces (represented by the white circular indent) that they were fighting in the Russian Civil War. This image has been recognized for generations as a symbol of Soviet communist victory over conservatives in the civil war that enabled communists to control Russia. It is absolutely the perfect image to use if you wanted to convince Resist Marxism and its potential allies that OSAH and the left in general wants to fight a civil war and set up a Communist dictatorship.
Now clearly this is a really bad strategy for OSAH, and bad for the left. The problems with Soviet-style government are well known, and the vast majority of people on the left have rejected Soviet-style totalitarianism for generations. The idea of having Soviet-style forces win a civil war and set up a government is extremely unpopular in America, for good reasons. Giving Resist Marxism a chance to point to visual evidence – “Look, the left really does want to win a civil war and set up Soviet-style rule” – is a great way to help Resist Marxism gain more recruits from the broad swathe of Americans who oppose Soviet-style dictatorship. It makes people in Resist Marxism more motivated to win the civil war that the image hints at. Many on the left would absolutely refuse, for good principled reasons, to line up on the side of this kind of Soviet-propaganda image. And yet OSAH has doubled down on this really stupid strategy. At the August rally, a dozen or so people from OSAH marched forward into Resist Marxism’s rally space holding Soviet-style red flags, almost as if they were trying to provoke bulls at a bullfight. I realize that OSAH didn’t actually make clear to their allies on the left that they were doing all this Soviet-style stuff, but Resist Marxism would certainly get the message.
Could OSAH actually be deliberately provoking Resist Marxism like this? That makes no sense — associating yourself with an unpopular cause like Soviet-style government strengthens your opponents and discourages your own potential allies. The Communist government in Russia, even as early as the Russian Civil War period, was a betrayal of left ideals, as many on the left know. And trying to provoke Resist Marxism to fight more isn’t consistent with OSAH’s claimed goal of trying to discourage them from coming back. Sure, there are plenty of other provocations that OSAH has done toward Resist Marxism, but it’s hard to tell whether all the provocations are part of some deliberate strategy — a stupid and counterproductive one — or whether the provocations are merely emotionally driven with no deliberate strategy at all.
What I’ve heard is that one group within Resist Marxism, Providence Democratic Socialists of America (Providence DSA), is responsible for a lot of this logo stuff. But the DSA, at least on a national level, has a reputation for rejecting Soviet-style government. The DSA’s national website says that they “always opposed the ruling party-states” of Communist Russia and its allies, and adds “We cannot allow all radicalism to be dismissed as ‘Communist'”, since that gives a “stigma” to socialism. It seems that what Providence DSA is doing in using these Russian Communist images is directly against the national DSA’s goals. I have to ask myself if this is just another case where certain groups of modern socialists claim to be against Soviet-style government but can’t keep themselves from having feelings of support for it. In any case, I don’t think OSAH can claim to represent the best of the left when it uses so many images like this.
Is censorship okay when the government isn’t doing it?
OSAH is claiming that it’s fine for them to keep all Resist Marxism people from speaking at a public event, which incidentally is similar to what the Soviet Union did to its ideological opponents. At the August rally some people on the OSAH side suggested that this no-platforming is fine under the Constitution, because the First Amendment only applies to government censorship. However, that excuse doesn’t hold water.
American history has many examples where a group of private individuals tried to suppress someone’s speech. We know what that’s like. When pro-slavery mobs attacked abolitionists’ printing presses, or when a Memphis mob destroyed the printing press of anti-lynching activist Ida B. Wells, that’s gone down in history as an attack on free speech, even though the government wasn’t involved. When San Diego mobs in 1911-1912 attacked members of the Industrial Workers of the World for speaking in public, we all know that was an attack on free speech. When classic gatherings of women’s suffrage activists were shut down by hostile crowds, that was an attack on free speech too. Carrie Chapman Catt and Nettie Shuler described one of those no-platforming actions against women’ suffrage activists in their historical book Woman Suffrage and Politics, and commented “No mob ever destroyed an idea, but many a mob has given one a fresh impulse.” Let’s not pretend that the principle of free speech only applies to the government. If you say you’re not part of the government, but you still try to forcibly prevent people from speaking in public, then you are, in effect, setting yourself up as a kind of government and specifically as a government that suppresses free speech. Genuinely respecting freedom means that you have to let even unpopular groups have their chance to speak.
Any society that denies free speech rights to some views, no matter whether the ban is imposed through official government action or by groups of private individuals who don’t want to let others speak, always ends up trying to suppress the words of those fighting for rights against the powers that be. If you try to say that views which count as “hate speech” should get no-platformed, then people will start counting progressive views as hate speech and shutting them down. There may be a vague sense shared by many on the left today that certain views should be dismissed as fascist, but the standards for what counts as fascist are so vague that they’re very open to abuse. History shows that suppressing speech always becomes a tool for oppression over time. I don’t think we’ll have to wait till today’s millennials are elderly before we see OSAH’s kind of attempted speech restrictions twisted into a way to cover up wrongdoing and protect the strong against the weak.
Human rights and demonizing opponents
But what matters is not just what the United States Constitution says about free speech. What matters is human rights. That’s why I oppose the people in Resist Marxism, with their taste for brutal violence and their willingness to associate themselves with prejudices like racism, sexism and homophobia. Freedom from these degrading prejudices is a human right. I realize that people in Resist Marxism feel under threat from bad tendencies that sometimes crop up on the left, and they demonize progressives as a whole. But it’s not just that demonizing people doesn’t excuse a disregard for human rights, but that the tendency to demonize people is itself wrong. When you demonize people, you’re not only training yourself to violate their rights, but you’re also cutting yourself off from appreciating the good things they’ve contributed to life.
So when Resist Marxism demonizes progressives, they’re blurring their own vision, trying to keep themselves from seeing the value of basic human rights (like freedom from racism) which progressives have done good work on. OSAH, for its part, not only demonizes nationalists but also rejects the United States as a nation, saying that they oppose “settler colonialism in all its forms.” But when you reject a nation like that, you cut yourself off from appreciating the better parts of its civic culture. Maybe OSAH’s rhetoric about thorough opposition to settler colonialism is intended to push aside the First Amendment – by rejecting the United States as a nation, they may hope to delegitimize the larger idea that free speech is a human right for everyone. That’s a really cheap move. Sure, it’s good to be aware of the bad things on the US’s record, and that kind of awareness can sometimes even help people do good if they have a conscience that works well. But it is entirely wrong to use criticism of a nation as a tactic to justify disregarding someone’s human rights, whether the human right involved is free speech or anything else. In any case, OSAH’s type of rejection of “settler colonialism,” which is sometimes amazingly anti-democratic, is very problematic. It’s hard to take seriously the idea that they support indigenous rights when they keep associating themselves with Russian Communism – the Communist government in Russia was very destructive toward indigenous people, and no real supporter of indigenous rights would want to be associated with them.
In a larger sense, both Resist Marxism and OSAH demonize their opponents and try to use that as an excuse for disregarding human rights. Demonizing people tends to go with seeing things as a “zero sum” situation — a situation where whatever one group wins the other group must lose. That zero-sum view of life is wrong. To listen to how people in Ocean State Against Hate were crowing in August after they forced out Resist Marxism for a day, they felt like it was zero-sum: the fact that Resist Marxism didn’t get the right to speak was all a great benefit for the rest of us. But in reality, that was just an inconclusive one-day scuffle. To see more of the good and bad stuff that matters, you have to look at a longer time scale and larger-scale stuff, including good things like social awakenings, and bad things like dehumanization, escalation and wars. At a larger scale my opponents’ loss is not necessarily my gain, even if it can feel as if it is. One reason why people become so cruel when wars break out is because torturing people or committing other cruelties starts to feel like a gain for your side. It’s common for hostile feelings to encourage a zero-sum view of things, where the suffering and harm that you feel like causing to your opponents appear as pluses for you, and you start to dismiss the other side’s rights.
But disregarding other people’s rights doesn’t mean that we gain. In real life, when someone’s rights start to be respected, it doesn’t mean that other people have to lose the same amount; a situation where everyone has rights is better for people as a whole than a situation where people don’t have rights. Respecting rights allows the good things to flourish that a zero-sum approach erodes. It’s true that respecting others’ rights brings out the best in ourselves, just as refusing to let people have rights like free speech brings out the worst in us; that’s one reason why the growth in human rights is probably the primary progressive goal.
Dropping human-rights principles doesn’t help
Free speech for all – letting anyone express their views in public no matter how much you dislike them – is something that’s often been supported by socialists and anarchists alike, even if not all socialists and anarchists agree. Noam Chomsky, a socialist and anarchist, has criticized antifa attacks on the right not only based on principled free-speech grounds, but also because “When we move to the arena of violence, the most brutal guys win – that’s the worst outcome (and, incidentally, it’s not us).” Rosa Luxemburg, a leading socialist, was an early critic of Russian Communism because, among other things, the Leninist government never allowed free speech.
OSAH presents the issue in simplistic terms: they say that if Resist Marxism gets to speak in public it will help Resist Marxism recruit others, while forcibly preventing Resist Marxism from speaking will keep the fascists out. That gets Resist Marxism’s strategy totally wrong. Their aim is not to recruit others by having a platform and speaking peacefully (in fact they’re too crude to even have a sincere belief in free speech). Instead, Resist Marxism’s strategy is to draw no-platforming attacks against itself, encourage the idea that an aggressive far left is attacking the rest of society, and use that to recruit anyone else who has concerns about the left. That works a lot better in helping Resist Marxism attract and recruit violence-minded people than a peaceful speech would.
Maybe OSAH realizes a little that Resist Marxism is trying to do this, but OSAH’s shoddy analysis and emotion-driven approach makes them unable to realize adequately what this shows about the problems of a no-platforming tactic. And of course OSAH doesn’t admit to other progressives that no-platforming is exactly what Resist Marxism wants. When sections of the left discard classic left principles like free speech, it doesn’t help the left win. And in particular, if anyone at or around the OSAH action ends up killing or crippling someone (as nearly happened to Samson Racioppi), that would be not just a tragedy but a disaster for progressive causes.
I don’t find the people in and around Resist Marxism to be that great, even the ones who aren’t particularly white supremacist. But I don’t consider them all to be murderous maniacs; some at least have a good side the way other humans do. Anyone who meets that minimal threshold has a dignity as a human. Like many others, I don’t want to live in a world where people don’t have their dignity as a human appreciated. I want people to have the right to talk with others, because it’s only in communication with others that your dignity as a human can be appreciated.
And as part of that, I want everyone to have the right to speak in public. If others in society decide that you aren’t among the ones who can publicly speak, in many ways that excludes you from full-scale participation in society, and participating in society is part of the core of being human. As a member of the left I believe in democracy – I mean democracy as a central principle, people all having an equal right to shape how society works, and I’m not talking about the stuff that passes for democracy in the United States. It is very much a violation of democracy to say that some people can’t speak in public or can’t express the views that matter to them. When people are excluded from full participation in the wider society, the ones who do the excluding become narrow-minded and selfish, and the people who are excluded tend to end up in ugly little mini-societies which are themselves exclusionary and often harmful to others.
When people have the opportunity to talk, they may spread ideas I don’t like, or they may learn something better and change their mind. Having the opportunity to learn from others and to be learned from is part of living an adequate human life. But even if talking does spread ideas I don’t like, not letting people fully participate in society is worse. I’d rather oppose the spread of bad views by respecting people’s human dignity and seeing what happens when they have the opportunity to grow, rather than by labeling them and people around them with a rough set of stereotypes.
I’m also aware that present-day progressivism is just a product of Euro-American culture, and that culture (like any culture) is not perfect. If you look at even the best members of the left 100 or 200 years ago, they had many views that turned out to be mistaken, and in some cases we’ve actually learned better by now. In the same way, the views that we present-day left people have aren’t perfect either, and I’m sure our views have some parts which could be seen as wrong or oppressive. Socialism, for instance, is a product of Euro-American culture and its record shows pretty clearly that it can be oppressive sometimes, even if it gets some things right. Hopefully in future generations we’ll come up with better ideas.
But I don’t want to act like we have all the answers. If people in Resist Marxism have a problem with socialism or other views of the left, that may not mean that these people on the right are totally wrong. They may have come to realize in some crude way that there are real flaws in our views that we should change. History shows that even the left can hate and can be oppressive. To be clear, I think that what Resist Marxism says is at least mostly wrong, but I’m not closing the door to the idea that they may be aware of some things we’re doing wrong and that the left’s history of bad actions may be playing a role in making things worse. That’s another reason why I don’t want to suppress conservatives’ free speech rights. Doing that would only bring out the worst in us, and would make us an oppressive quasi-government based on stereotypes. There’s no way it could produce a liberated and fair society.