One of my colleagues, Andy Ngo, is recuperating in a hospital with his skull bashed and earlobe torn by Portland Antifa. For those not aware, Andy is a sub-editor for Quillette, where I am a contributing writer, and he has been documenting the viral spread of the anarchist group Antifa in the city of Portland.
In his last such reporting, he was targeted, assaulted, and hospitalized with a brain bleed, with his camera and video instruments stolen. From the outside, Portland appears to tolerate this kind of anarchy, and Andy’s own work has highlighted that Portland is beset with a certain lawlessness. The city’s progressive mayor has time for LGBT pride parades, but orders his police forces to stand down when a gay Asian-American has his head caved in by a privileged bunch of ultra-violent cosplayers.
Antifa is short for “anti-fascist,” which is what these groups label themselves to excuse their crimes as a justified reaction to Donald Trump’s presidency. Antifa and other far-left personalities and groups openly organize every single day on Twitter and Facebook without any bans or fear of law enforcement. Andy has been targeted often by such people, not just Antifa but also by a section of liberal activists, lobbyists, policy people, and even liberal journalists who have tried to justify the assault on him.
In a blatant display of partisanship, the “fact-checker” website Snopes twisted itself like a pretzel trying to justify or at least minimize the gravity of the assault, which the editor of Quillette Claire Lehmann instantly called out. Quillette’s editorial also called this assault a wake-up call. CNN came up with a contorted tweet that almost made it sound like Ngo was simply caught in a cross-fire and is now blaming Antifa due to his personal biases.
Incidentally, Quillette has been on the forefront at unmasking journalists with overt sympathy for Antifa, and published a thorough paper to that effect.
“We were pilloried by left-leaning media last month for publishing a piece which scrutinised the relationship between a handful of journalists and Antifa,” Claire told me, “But considering how the violence at Portland has been downplayed or at times even justified by those same journalists, it is clear that more scrutiny is needed, not less.”
The assault finally caught the eyes of politicians as well, with the U.S. Ambassador to Germany Richard Grennell being exceptionally vocal about it, as a prominent gay American leader: “Andy is a friend of mine and he is one brave reporter. What has happened to him should never happen to anyone,” Grennell told me.
Take a Lesson from History
Ngo’s case is not unique, and it points to a dark history. Of course, the Portland kids are not the German Antifa of the 1930s, nor are the Proud Boys, the right-wing group that often brawls with them over free speech, comparable to Nazis. And the USA isn’t facing an economic collapse like 1930s Germany.
Both groups are mostly Live Action Role Players trying to find meaning in their otherwise void, libertine, and undisciplined life, often by bashing skulls and destroying properties. They have never faced a concerted reaction, they have never had the state crack down with the full might of the law, and they have never seen a man burning alive next to them in a Molotov cocktail or riot police beating the hell out of rioters.
I sincerely doubt many of these face-masked punks would be there on the streets the moment after they realize that punches, kicks, shields, and batons are not always one directional. But that does not mean it can never get worse. That also does not mean we can’t apply lessons from larger epochs of history more locally.
There’s a theory in Marxism known as “heightening the contradictions.” Karl Marx wrote a vague theory of economic history, with a flawed prediction about how society would develop and shape in future. But he didn’t say anything about day to day organization, so it was up to future Marxists to design and interpret Marxism according to their cultural and historical background.
It was Vladimir Lenin who realized that in order to bring about a violent revolution, you need to move society to a point, often through external effort, where there’s nothing but the enmity between two groups of people. Only in that chaos can true revolutionary communists take power.
The major flaw in this idea was that Lenin seemed to be certain that in chaos only the communists can win with power. Unfortunately for his side, in reality, the monopoly on violence is never one-sided. In that sense, violence is often Newtonian and follows natural laws: the reaction is often just as powerful as the action.
In the Weimar Republic in the Germany of the 1920s, this was displayed in full. Practically, there was no difference between the Nazis and communists in Berlin, which was, at that point, the “reddest city in Europe after Moscow.” Joseph Goebbels, for example, used the same rhetoric and organizational tactics that the German communists used in his speeches.
“The worker in a capitalist state—and that is his deepest misfortune—is no longer a living human being, a creator, a maker. He has become a machine. A number, a cog in the machine without sense or understanding. He is alienated from what he produces,” Goebbels wrote in 1932, “but a revolutionary achievement following from the radical carrying out of the basic life needs of the working class. A ruthless battle against corruption! A war against exploitation, freedom for the workers! The elimination of all economic-capitalist influences on national policy!”
The battle in the streets of Weimar Germany, with massive inflation and poverty and national humiliation, was essentially, between two sets of authoritarian thugs, the Nazis and the Antifaschistische Aktion, the original German Antifa. Both the German imperial monarchist conservatives and the Weimar liberals failed, and refused, respectively, to bring about order.
If Police Won’t Enforce the Law, Voters Will Respond
To quote W. H. Auden, those to whom evil is done do evil in return. Violence almost always begets violence, and if liberals and conservatives refuse, or fail, to establish order, like their forefathers from 80 years back, someone else will. The majority of the common people throughout the Western world do not want a revolution or civil war or anything of that sort. All they want is peace, civilization, and lawful streets. They will support anyone who will provide them security amidst lawlessness.
Throughout history, people support the establishment of peace and authority, often through force in extreme circumstances. It is a natural human instinct to form a social contract and establish a secured society amidst natural anarchy. If American liberals and conservatives both fail to bring about order in generic lawlessness and anarchy, they will pave the way for normal middle-class peaceful Americans to elect someone to bring about order.
Anarchy is equal to, if not worse than, tyranny, and if history is a guide, unless governments come to their senses and govern, a Leviathan always rises. In between, a lot of people like Ngo will have their heads caved in.
Sumantra Maitra is a doctoral researcher at the University of Nottingham, UK, and a senior contributor to The Federalist. His research is in great power-politics and neorealism. You can find him on Twitter @MrMaitra.