Non-violence is morally superior to violence. This is true, and from an ethical standpoint, indisputable. Only an evil person would say otherwise, someone interested in people acting or behaving immorally.
There is, however, a paradox inherent to the pursuit of non-violence. This is evidenced by the pursuit of nuclear weapons by various nations. No country armed with nuclear weapons has ever directly attacked another country armed with nuclear weapons. And the only country to have possessed a nuclear arsenal—Ukraine—was attacked very swiftly after it gave its entire arsenal up (ironically, by the country to which it gave its nuclear arsenal). The greatest act of non-violence almost immediately invited a violent incursion by enemies.
Here is the paradox, then: the only way to ensure non-violence is to be prepared for violence—at least at the level matching one’s political (which is to say economic) rivals. It is precisely at the moment that violence becomes a feasible and compelling option when the decision to use non-violence has its greatest moral weight.
In the U.S., the political left has forgotten this.
An Instructive Anecdote
My father’s stepmother died when I was in college. She hadn’t liked me very much—kids pick up on it when they’re seen as burdensome or annoying by adults. While my mother’s mother was one of my greatest supporters, I don’t remember much kindness from dad’s stepmother. Consequently, growing up I did not go out of my way to learn about her past.
She and I didn’t see eye to eye on many issues: how my sister and I got along, the appropriate ratio of vegetables to meat, and the proper attitude by which to approach gardening. But the greatest point of contention was around the childhood toys I favored. Grandma “Fritzy” enforced strict prohibitions against toys and books that celebrated guns and war. Prohibition never makes sense to young boys of a certain temperament, and these particular prohibitions doubly so. Sorting through a box of her personal effects after the funeral with my cousins, nothing could have surprised me more than what I discovered: black-and-white photos of her training to shoot targets with a rifle.
When I showed my grandfather the photo, he said that it had been taken of her in the 1930s, when she was in upstate New York with her first husband, a prominent socialist. They’d been training to fight the federal government and F.B.I. The photo described another world, a place so far removed from our reality in the late 1990s it seemed entirely abstract. People on the left training for war against anyone, let alone the F.B.I., was absurd, stupid. The left I knew—my antiwar, pro-peace grandmother wasn’t the “fighting” kind, let alone actively preparing for insurrection.
I was wrong about my grandmother, and I was wrong about the left. Most people approaching leftist politics from the center or right are.
An Objection: Does The Left Exist in the U.S.?
When most people think of a political left in the U.S., it ends up as a caricature of college-age radicals and trust-fund babies more interested in scoring weed than debating the salient points of radical communist theory, let alone attempting to live according to those theories. Occupy Wall Street, Bernie Sanders’ candidacy, and Black Lives Matter (as well as the campus protests of 2015-16) all get rolled into one vaguely threatening-yet-incompetent miasma of idealists struggling with futility against the status quo.
This is because most imaginings of an American “left” are usually organized in popular opinion around adherents of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels’ oeuvre. For those readers who are somehow unfamiliar with Marx and Engels, the two are most well known as proponents of communist society, wherein workers control the means of economic production and therefore political power. Thus organized, the workers impose equal division of economic and political power—rather than its accumulation in the hands of a few bankers, aristocrats, businessmen and factory owners. By that formulation, communism is an outdated (or, among people at the center or right of the political spectrum, a failed) political ideology—it is an idealistic product of the industrial age from which it emerged.
The popularity of Sanders as a candidate among certain demographics—people hit hardest by changes in the organization and profitability of U.S. industry and manufacturing sectors, as well as students—suggests (but does not prove) that Marx still has some relevance in contemporary U.S. society. And when one takes into account the alarming likelihood that industry and manufacturing were simply the first industries to be changed by technological advances that now threaten almost every sector, it’s not difficult to see how “the left” could soon discover a massive new set of adherents.
Although “the left” was crushed in the U.S. during the first part of the 20th century and has been wandering in the political hinterlands since then, it’s possible that its time has arrived as the most logical of all competing political ideas, with the broadest appeal.
“The left” in its current iteration enjoys little actual political traction and almost no respect from any other enclave on the political spectrum in the U.S., but its defeat and near-dismantling did not succeed in destroying it completely. Now, in the aftermath of Hillary Clinton’s defeat and the rise of Donald Trump, it is poised to make a comeback. An important component of that comeback includes re-appropriating the means to do violence, and the will to effect it.
Another Objection: The Role of Race
The prospect of arming an ethnically diverse left in the U.S. must also confront omnipresent issues of racism and America’s history with its black population. This is a topic for a much longer essay, but I don’t want readers thinking that I’ve ignored the question. Personally, I think a multi-ethnic, multi-racial left composed of well-armed workers ready for and prepared to do violence is vastly stronger than an ethnically or racially homogenous right. The legal history of “gun control” has involved keeping firearms out of black hands, and carefully controlling how their culture views gun use (oversimplified cinema version of this truth: black gangs use guns, black heroes use kung-fu or nonviolence).
It seems perfectly reasonable, then, that in order for a true “left” to emerge in the U.S., it must draw its foundational inspiration from true equality, rather than a lip-service wherein some (the white males) are encouraged to bear arms, and others (the blacks, Asians, Hispanics and females) are encouraged to march peacefully, enduring savage beat-downs at the hands of law enforcement and paramilitaries when and wherever necessary.
The identity politics embraced by the center and right have been wonderful for securing narrow segments of the population transitory political influence. The broadest possible coalition requires a movement that can credibly claim to stand for people regardless of their race, sexuality, gender affiliation or creed. Only the left can offer this hope.
An Alternative: Disengagement
For decades, occasionally (during the administrations of Republicans, mostly) it has been socially fashionable to speak in terms of resistance, opposition, and rebellion. Saturday Night Life pokes at the conservative president’s (Reagan, Bush, Bush again, now Trump) many insecurities. Outraged citizens cram the streets, terrified by the prospect of four to eight years of direct exploitation and misery. Dozens of think-pieces published through respected media feed into their agony.
The current iteration feels more passionate and seems immediate due to Trump’s unusual background and the amplifying presence of social media. This helps foster a collective catharsis for the feelings of impotence consuming citizens in the center and on the left.
One of those pieces, published in Deadspin, helped crystalize what, to me, is the problem’s essence. That essence is a misunderstanding of what “the left” is, and what’s at stake. Hamilton Nolan’s article discouraging people from joining the military echoes 1960s and 70s calls to undermine an objectionable system by dropping out of it, and in doing so, along with other centrist or center-left critiques of status quo, “reject,” or “defy” America’s political trajectory under President (fuck is it ever shitty, perfectly shitty) Donald Trump. But while disengagement as a means of resistance has gotten high marks for its ability to halt Vietnam, it didn’t do quite as well when it came to actively overhauling a deeply entrenched system of patronage based on inherited wealth and influence.
I wrote a response for Task and Purpose about why I thought Nolan’s position was mistaken. The essay explained in part why anyone should join the military, pointing out that the political identity of the president does little to predict where and how you may fight (witness Madison, Lincoln, Wilson, FDR, Truman, Kennedy, and LBJ, for a start—or Clinton, for people who signed 4-year contracts with the military in 1999). From a centrist perspective, or that of the status quo, one should join the military and serve based on one’s desire to serve, not the identity of a president.
The essay did not go nearly far enough, though. It didn’t tackle Nolan’s obscuring, deflating argument. No, reading his Deadspin piece, I found myself thinking and wanting to say this: the left must militarize.
For decades, citizens on the left (often erroneously conflated with Democrats and the Democratic Party) of U.S. politics have seen their duty as pacifistic and non-confrontational. There are a number of reasons for the left’s willful and conspicuous self-neutering, most conspicuously as a result of the left’s longstanding political identity within the broader Democratic Party, a group large enough to achieve political change and preserve hard-gained political victories—presumably, change in which the left believed, victories the left was unwilling to concede.
That hasn’t been the case since the end of the Cold War (not coincidentally, the last time anything even resembling a leftist movement, at least to popular imagination [despite of its name, the Soviet Union was hardly ‘socialist’] could reasonably be said to inspire fear).
Patriotic Democrats have always been willing to sacrifice the left’s agenda of financial equality and right to dignified work. Since the end of the Cold War and the election of Bill Clinton, though, liberals and progressives doubled down on preserving their own economic privilege and political status. A key strategy to preserving that understandable (albeit selfish and destructive) impulse to hoard capital from criticism has, in practice, meant silencing meaningful dissent.
Democrats continue to enthusiastically champion a self-serving and inaccurate vision of history wherein “non-violent resistance” guarantees political change. Like Gandhi, like Martin Luther King, like, you know, Jesus and stuff. It’s fantasy worthy of Lord of the Rings, or Game of Thrones: violence isn’t something the left would ever consider, it’s just not in their blood. The awful, unsophisticated compulsion to hurt other humans physically is the sole provenance of the other guys, the lunatic right.
The successful sale of non-violence as panacea is a great testament to the ability of humans to delude themselves when it is beneficial to do so. That the left, writ large, has internalized a myth that was forced upon them, first at gunpoint and later by generations of economic and social opprobrium, is one of history’s most extraordinary disappointments… The myth, absurd to any child familiar with play-time at school, states that non-violence by itself is feasible as a means of exerting power. What a brave and terrifying long con! And how stupid of the left to have bought it! The people participating in this obscure lie are either useful fools, members of the right who actively (and quixotically) wish the destruction of the left, or centrists with economic interests opposed to any serious (downward) redistribution of wealth.
Here’s the truth: non-violence is superior to violence, unquestionably so. Non-violence is only powerful when it’s a choice, however, when it’s a deliberate laying aside of some awful option, despite force being useful, even imminent. As of writing, the left has deliberately maneuvered itself away from any viable alternative to non-violence. Ethically, the left deserves applause for eschewing violence to achieve political, economic, or social ends. Practically speaking? The left (of which I am a proud part) has backed itself into a situation not unlike that of an inmate of a political concentration camp—without any means to resist the guards, who are the inmate’s enemies.
Enough about “the left” for the time being—how does its opposition approach violence?
The Right to Remain Armed
As defined by media and popular imagination, “the right” is a group that encompasses moderate conservatives, libertarians, reactionaries and a hodgepodge of ethnic nationalists and religious extremists.
“The right” believes that national defense comes down to personal responsibility, and that people on the right should personally take responsibility for national defense—actively by being a soldier, or passively by supporting the troops (or at least not passive-aggressively by not supporting the troops or something). A partial consequence of this attitude is that personally taking responsibility for national defense is seen as a positive thing. Another partial consequence of this attitude is that one is encouraged to own weapons—or at least not discouraged from doing so.
Conservatives in U.S. politics and society sees itself as guard against many definitional threats to traditional American values. This often expresses itself as racism, sexism, and homophobia. Because of the intensity of this concern, it also expresses itself in gun ownership. It’s worth pointing out here that the executive vice president for the National Rifle Association sees “the left” as a threat on par with radical jihadist terrorism. So much for the NRA’s mission to defend the 2nd Amendment and preach the gospel of gun ownership—what they really want is gun ownership on the right.
The Right Sees Violence as Valid
Here, we could talk about the structural violence of drug legislation, mass incarceration, police brutality and economic segregation celebrated on the right—of course, centrists (including many Democrats) actively support those phenomena, too. Instead, let’s conduct a short thought experiment.
Picture someone on the right expressing their views with a tee-shirt. Chances are, that tee-shirt has an American flag somewhere. It also probably has a gun, or an explicit reference to the necessity of using guns, presumably to protect the flag. It also has some kind of saying like, for example, “don’t ever think that the reason I am peaceful is because I forgot how to be violent,” (a right wing tee-shirt) or “you may not believe in violence but you are protected by men and women who do” (another right-wing tee-shirt that not subtly encourages its reader to do more to support the troops). It may also say something like “these colors don’t run.”
Tee-shirts do not an academic or intellectual argument make. But there is a certain truth expressed there, proudly, to be seen by all and sundry in the public square. “The right” understands that violence—verbal, psychological, political, or actual—can be necessary in certain situations. It has prepared itself for this eventuality, ideologically and actually, by encouraging service in the military, by encouraging gun ownership, by encouraging belligerent rhetoric, and by encouraging the wearing of boastful tee-shirts to that effect. It has prepared itself by embracing violence as necessary, valid, essential, and good.
“The right” has been wise to do this.
Before the election, I saw evidence of many people on “the right” procuring ammunition and weapons to guard against Hillary Clinton’s election. “Cleaning my rifle,” one associate from my time in the military posted on his Facebook timeline the day of November 8th (not an uncommon post for a certain demographic). Most people assumed that Clinton would win, and those on “the right” weren’t sure what was going to happen next—but they were prepared to use violence if they thought that was necessary.
And not prepared in the sense that they owned guns, and ammunition, and were ready to do something, nebulously connected to violence, maybe, if that was called for. Cleaning the rifle for use. Ready and waiting.
What’s Left of the U.S. “Left”?
To begin with, the Bill and Hillary Clinton supporters Rush Limbaugh made a career out of attacking, the Obamas and Bloombergs and Rahm Emmanuals that many on the right call “libtards,” progressives, liberals, leftists, and commies, are not “the left.” They’re centrists. Popularly conflated or used synonymously with the Democratic Party, “the left,” in U.S. media and popular imagination includes such diverse groups and interests as centrists, moderate liberals, and progressives. They’re people with progressive social values, who completely buy into every Ayn Randian notion about how society is and should be structured. They save money and possessions to pass along to their progeny. They exist in the middle and upper middle class, with some exceptions tied to gender and racial identity. They believe in the American dream. They think that this dream should be accessible to everyone, regardless of sex, gender, religion, race, or creed.
That’s not the left, of course, not even the watered-down U.S. version of “the left” to which Americans became accustomed during the Cold War. The remainder of “the left” that wasn’t rooted out by 1950 or so exists now on the fringe—socialists, communists, and the bevy of anarcho- extremist subgroups that one can encounter outside the Democratic Party. There are fewer of them than the Limbaughs and Breitbarters imagine, but more than many Democrats suspected before the 2016 primary.
Differences between subgroups on what most thinkers in the mainstream or salaried media call “the left” and the Democratic Party have been muted by its publicly inclusive nature (at least, up until recently)—moderate conservatives will not dignify neo-Nazi ethno-nationalists with public debate although they share attitudes about trade, for example, but a moderate liberal will debate an anarcho-syndicalist in public or in private, and feel no shame about doing so.
“The left” views physical violence as unacceptable, save occasionally in self-defense. Guns, according to “the left,” should not be held or owned by individuals—rather, by groups sanctioned by the government. The state should control the means to violence, and employ it only when faced with some existential threat.
This is almost an exact opposite to how violence operates on “the right,” where violence begins as permissible, and the more extreme one becomes, the more enthusiastic the embrace for violence, until one reaches credos like those of the Nazis, which embraced violence and struggle as goods unto themselves.
How Violence on “The Left” became Taboo
If you repeat the tee-shirt experiment on “the left,” it’s easy to visualize one of your friends from college or high school wearing a sepia-toned “peace” / “love” / “happiness” style tee-shirt. There are many “Che” tee-shirts, too, but up until Spring 2016, these were less exhortations to violent resistance than knowledge-signaling and fetishistic, exotic aesthetic flourishes among high school and college-age intellectuals dissatisfied with the status quo. According to the norm as it existed before Bernie Sanders’ candidacy in the Democratic Primary, wearing a “Che” tee-shirt in college corresponded probably correlated more accurately with a J.D. from Duke, rather than arrest for participation in a radical leftist political group.
The left in America crested with its failed opposition to World War I. When the U.S. became involved, the government passed two acts that permitted crackdowns on anyone preaching disobedience to the war (a group that included the bulk of the left, which saw fighting or dying on behalf of global capitalism as morally wrong). They were called the Sedition Act (1917) and the Espionage Act (1918). While this forced much of the left in the U.S. underground (with increasing aggression and government management after a leftist movement toppled Russia’s government in late 1917), their ideas ended up making it into America’s economy when the economy collapsed and Franklin Delano Roosevelt became president. McCarthyism, the Cold War, and violent nationalist movements in Russia, and South and Central America that expressed themselves in leftist terms helped drive a nail into its coffin in the 2oth century.
The protests against Vietnam were not driven by the anti-war left. The left participated, but for the most part, the movement was co-opted by centrists, and progressives, people from the center-left. People like John Kerry, and Bill Clinton. Even so, since Vietnam, people who oppose war have been known as hippies, peaceniks, and pinkos.
Use social media instead of the tee-shirt analogy. Taking a position on “the left” means prohibiting violence, giving criminals the benefit of the doubt, and reining in the power of armed individuals. Peaceful protests, peaceful marches, dialogue and empathy versus confrontation.
Violence is wrong, violence is bad, violence is dangerous. People on “the left” understand this. It has been drilled into generations of U.S. citizens—on “the left.” What’s been forgotten is that the threat of violence is a necessary precondition to being taken seriously.
Why is it Okay for “The Right” to Fetishize Violence, but not “The Left?”
As with “the left,” “the right” is a wide place, and part of it, on the extreme side of the spectrum, is cluttered with gun fetishists, paramilitaries, and people preaching the gospel of violence for violence’s sake (often while wearing tee-shirts that attest to this). “The Left”—not so much. Why? Is this a philosophical split, some kind of ideological lens that prohibits violence based on political attitudes?
I believe it goes back to the USSR’s founding—the Russian revolution, and the seizure of massive amounts of private property by “the left” in various countries, part of a doomed attempt to usher in Karl Marx’s utopian visions through force. This coincided with “the left” in America gathering a great deal of actual political and economic power, in the form of unions, anti-capital populist politicians, and isolationists who wanted to keep the U.S. out of World War I entirely. So much so that the center and right formed an alliance to destroy the left—permanently.
That catastrophic neutering was so deep, so profound, and lasted with no break for so long, that it takes historical research to dredge up simple facts like, for example, a major presidential candidate (Eugene Debs) was imprisoned under the aforementioned Sedition Act from 1917-1921… by a Democrat. Or that between 1880 and 1930, thousands of workers were killed while striking by police, National Guardsmen, and hired guns in the employ of businessmen. Murdered, not beaten (though beaten, too). That, in fact, innocent people were executed for having appeared to conform to the national narrative of the dangerous and destabilizing, revolutionary left.
Newspapers eagerly reprinted stories of leftist violence and agitation in the U.S., eager to forestall what they saw as a likely revolution on the part of workers, along the lines of what had happened in Russia. Many former Russian nobles were here to offer testimony about the horrors of the Russian Revolution (one assumes they left out the details of how their treatment of serfs could possibly have led to this eventuality), and business owners in the U.S. were already outraged about the having lost political or social leverage. A scapegoat was found for all: American socialists. The American left.
Even the moderate socialism of Franklin Delano Roosevelt was deemed heretical by later generations of centrists eager to accommodate “the right.” Instances of socialism among Republicans, carefully censured and controlled (though brought up when expedient), like Eisenhower’s interstate-building project, or Nixon’s development of the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Socialism, the redistribution of wealth, was an absolute bad—was un-American. One didn’t get political concessions from violence, on the left—one got it through making deals, in a free market of political ideas.
For a time at the end of WWI, nothing in the U.S. was more dangerous than an armed worker taking part in any kind of collective bargain. Not even an armed black man offered a greater threat, and everyone knows that an angry, politically motivated armed black man is the most terrifying image to large swaths of the U.S. public (and especially the voting public). No, it was the specter of workers seizing power that led Hoover to order MacArthur and Patton to charge and break up the “Bonus Army” of WWI vets clamoring for assistance in Washington D.C.
A Way Forward
But this does not mean that “the left” cannot turn things around. On the contrary, “the left” can and should begin militarizing, immediately. By taking back the means of violence that is every American’s Constitutional right, “the left” will be able to bargain again on its own terms—or, failing that, expose centrists as the collaborationist stooges they are, and “the right” as fascists, elitists, despots and authoritarians.
Arming for violence requires the following actions, which conscientious and politically committed leftist must carry out at the earliest opportunity. 1) leftists must join the military, with special attention to the combat branches. Joining the Army Infantry and the Marine Corps, becoming Navy SEALs, and Army Rangers, and Green Berets, and Explosives Ordnance Disposal Technicians in any branch must be priorities for leftists. Pilots of helicopters and fighter jets, too, are critically important. 2) leftists must buy, train on, and maintain rifles, carbines, and handguns. 3) leftists should organize into groups of 10-15, and do activities like (2) together.
Organizing for violence does not mean that “the left” should or will initiate violence, anywhere. Non-violence is and must remain a solid, core tenet of what it means to reside on the intellectual or political left, along with humanism and a belief that in spite of our fundamentally flawed nature, generosity is necessary, even with enemies. I was witness to the efficacy of this behavior during both deployments to Afghanistan—as well as the necessity of having force behind the non-violence.
Non-violence is the means by which the left can carry out political opposition—this is where moral superiority exists. But it cannot happen without arms—assault rifles, sniper rifles, pistols, and the means to fabricate more and greater means for destruction. IEDs, pipe-bombs, and all manner of devices should be within the left’s means—if not its possession (those things that are not legal to possess should not be possessed).
If “the left” is unarmed, if it does not know the ways of war and warfare, it will gain and retain nothing. Its political opposition figured this out a long time ago.
Repeated by people on the right and at the center, even by progressives, the assessment that the left is incapable of backing its rhetoric up with anything save non-compliance (which is easily corralled through arrest, imprisonment, and economic sanction) is correct. There is no coercive means the left could use beyond mean words—not even hypothetically—and for those who adore and respect violence as an effective means of dispute resolution, this means there is no reason to grant them any special consideration.
Without weapons, training, and resolve, the left will be given exactly and precisely nothing. Which means, on a certain level, that the left deserves nothing.
Rather than discussing the various ways in which people on the left can protest, or organize, or collaborate, it is more useful today to discuss how to prepare a substantial portion of patriotic, loyal U.S. citizens using just and strong leftist political ideology for military service.