Woke liberals and alt-right trolls share a particular basket of noxious tactics. As Liza Featherstone notes in The Baffler, militants of both camps often “dox” their enemies — publish a target’s personal details to expose that person to suffering — and go after those enemies’ jobs. Such practices are ethically murky at best, it should be but isn’t needless to say. Their compatibility with the alt-right’s frank Nietzschean repudiation of morality is telling, and they’re McCarthyite through and through: the state persecution of communists during the days of the House Un-American Activities Committee was also waged primarily by attacks on people’s livelihoods, as Featherstone points out. Today’s liberals sometimes minimize the seriousness of that economic violence, deny that it is in fact violent; in a striking number of cases, those same folks tend to be insulated from any such potential privations by thick wads of family cash.
But wait! An acceptable villain, a legitimate target of doxxing and stalking and harassment, poison-pen letters to bosses and college administrators, has appeared on the scene! Behold, resurrected from that one bit of history everyone can be trusted actually to have heard of, descended from the blood-slicked frames of a Tarantino film: the Nazi! The white supremacist violence in Charlottesville presented progressives with names and faces dazzlingly permissible to hate. We must not “tolerate the intolerant,” etc. We should embrace a “diversity of tactics,” including doxxing spiteful idiots. Who could disagree? They’re actual, literal Nazis.
Well, yes, but a funny thing about Nazis: though they affirm an ideology that sites the source of group belonging in the blood, nothing in their blood makes them Nazis. An implicitly identitarian idea of the fascist — one that sees The Fash as a thing some marginal monsters are, instead of a thing many ordinary people (and states!) to various extents and rather often do — is inaccurate, ahistorical, and counterproductive in ways that matter. Not only does it reproduce the same kind of essentialism that’s in play when white supremacists assert their own natural racial difference, but it also sweeps from view the paths by which young people (especially) become indoctrinated by the far right. And it abjures completely the project of deprogramming and incorporating the winnable among them into an actually emancipatory movement.
To build such a movement means, inevitably, to recruit those whose current politics are in many aspects reprehensible. The belief that a successful, broad-based left can be composed exclusively of people who today identify as leftists or liberals is false. Just ask Lenin: “The task devolving on Communists is to convince the backward elements, to work among them, and not to fence ourselves off from them with artificial and childishly ‘Left’ slogans.” In his pleasingly titled 1920 pamphlet “‘Left-Wing’ Communism: an Infantile Disorder,” Lenin reminds us that to build socialism, we work not with “abstract human material,” but rather with the broken, wounded, dissipated “human material bequeathed to us by capitalism.” With patience and perseverance, we must wage a ideological campaign not just on but also in “those institutions, societies and associations—even the most reactionary—in which proletarian or semi-proletarian masses are to be found.” This isn’t to deny the need to rebuff physical violence by actually existing fascists with an answering defensive violence. Probably that’s sometimes necessary; to my mind, it needs to be judged case-by-case. But besides being an ineffectual distraction, throwing random punches at Nazis doesn’t go nearly far enough: we should destroy the Nazi in the man, but we also can and have to save the man. This won’t always be possible, but wherever it is possible, it’s necessary.
If we want to take practical steps to build socialism and not just indulge a counter-revolutionary politics of catharsis, we should pay close attention to the narratives of former fascists and neo-Nazis who managed to get out. Some of the people in the grip of those ideologies may be lost to hate, but others are kids grasping for belonging, solidarity, and purpose in an atomized society that’s left them half-crippled with despair. It’s easy to understand the urge to dox these people, to get them driven from college or fired, but not only do such tactics do nothing to repair the underlying causes of radicalization (and sometimes result in horrifying cases of mistaken identity), but they also signal that our movement knows only the will to retaliate when confronted with those who are or have been in sin. They communicate this not just to the Nazis themselves but also to the many, many more people observing the melee, potential converts to either side. Rather than wish suffering on those flirting with toxic politics, because they deserve it — it’s something deeper than “both sides”-ism to say we all fucking deserve it — our movement should meet them on the day after the day after their worst mistake and show them the way home. An alternative account of reality, an alternative politics, an open hand and an open door. In the Jewish tradition this process is called T’shuvah, and is honoured. The word is translated often as repentance. More precisely, it means return.
If you think this Pollyannaish, recall that the presumption in advance that certain people are irredeemable underwrites the prison-industrial complex — gotta defend against those “super-predators” — and all the police and other state-sanctioned brutality that goes with it.
Reject fascism, not just fascists.